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Juggling Fitness and Expectation

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As hard as it can be to understand emotionally for those watching, the goal for Kenny Dalglish must in the end be to manage his squad in order to provide the club with the best chance of success across the entire season and not just for the best chance to succeed in any given week. It's what made the decision to start with Luis Suarez against Sunderland in the season opener the wrong choice—albeit an easily understood one. And it's what made the decision to start with Raul Meireles on the bench in both matches despite the largely anonymous play of Jordan Henderson the right one.

Following the opening day draw to Sunderland, Dalglish even admitted that he'd made a mistake starting Suarez: It had been a decision made with eyes on starting things off with a bang, rather than worrying about whether it might make Suarez more likely to be less effective come March and April of the new year.

Last week [against Sunderland] maybe I was being a wee bit romantic with Luis. It was unfair on him. He was coming back and was on such a high and looked sharp in training. I thought I'd give him a game.

Maybe last week it was the wrong decision from me. He still scored the goal, still played well but he just never had the energy he normally has. Maybe we just brought him back a wee bit too soon.

It was a mistake he would correct against Arsenal, keeping his star striker on the bench until seventy minutes had elapsed. Only giving him twenty minutes in instead of sixty or seventy while facing the possibility of a match where the team was down or level and it would be difficult to take his most dangerous attacker off was the smart long-term decision. Even still, while Liverpool struggled to show much attacking threat in the early going on Saturday, it lead to the expected questions about why on earth Dalglish would leave Suarez out. And there was a real danger that if the Arsenal match had ended badly people would have slotted the Suarez omission right alongside the first week's Flanagan inclusion as a mark against the manager.

That it worked as well as it did validates the choice, but even if it hadn't—and even if Suarez starts on the bench next Saturday against Bolton and it doesn't work out—it would have been the correct decision, and one made in the club and player's best long term interests.

Still, the Suraez situation is one that has been given a fair bit of coverage as people argue about how much time he needs to get back to full fitness while managing his long term health given his role leading Uruguay to Copa America glory. Not everyone watching may be quite on the same page when it comes to just how important bringing him back into things slowly is, but most are at least aware of the discussion. Yet he isn't the only regular from last season struggling with fitness issues.

Raul Meireles, who also came on for the last twenty minutes against Arsenal to great effect, suffered an ankle injury early in preseason, severely limiting his participation in training and friendlies. But with less talk of the Portuguese midfielder's fitness—or with most of the talk instead centring on seemingly completely groundless speculation over his future with the club—it's been easy for this to slip a little under the radar. Instead of talking about his fitness levels, importance to the pass and move football Liverpool aspires to fully embrace, and injury concerns, most of the discussion has revolved around fans getting caught up in dogmatic moneyball talking points. The result has been to almost completely overlook any other issues with the player while people are busy overlooking completely that John Henry and FSG have never followed the dogmatic, Oakland A's variant of moneyball so may use as a reference point when making the foolish suggestion that the club would be better off making five million more off Meireles' sale now than in four years, even if it made the squad worse in the here and now and hurt the club's short term prospects.

After Jordan Henderson's disappointing opening day display on the right of midfield against Sunderland, though, the concerns of fans shifted back to on the pitch matters, with a nearly universal belief at least that Henderson wouldn't start against Arsenal. Whether it would mean a role in the starting eleven for Meireles of not was less clear, at least at the time, though when the teamsheets came out and Henderson was again starting while Meireles remained on the bench, there was an assumption by some who had become emotionally invested in his departure over the summer that it signaled just what Dalglish thought of Raul Meireles.

While Henderson's performance was more composed and effective in a more central role against Arsenal, when Meireles came on late alongside Luis Suarez it was once again a reminder of the difference in class—right now, at least—between the two players. And with the way Dalglish talked of the impact his pair of substitutes had after the match, it was a reminder both that does see the obvious value in Raul Meireles and also that the midfielder is in fact nowhere near full fitness.

We were really pleased with Andy Carroll's work, and Dirk Kuyt's, but when you've got two players of that quality on the bench, it would be wrong not to at least have a go with them.

We've got to manage Luis's circumstances the same as we have everybody else's. There were another four or five lads there who we had for the first time. Raul Meireles has had a difficult preseason with injuries so we've got to look after him as well as Luis.

Of course, long term—if and when the squad is ever fully fit—it may still be hard for some to see Meireles starting week in and week out with the sudden wealth of depth at the club. But the difference he made against Arsenal alongside Suarez was a reminder to all those with short memories of just what a difference he can make to the squad's style of play. And Dalglish's post match comments were a reminder to the rest watching that he was in fact out for most of preseason, that he isn't back at full fitness yet, and that he's indeed likely to play an integral role alongside Suarez in any Liverpool success over the coming season.

For right now, though, both players will have to be managed with an eye to seeing them put in their best performances when Arsenal visits Liverpool in March while hoping that that new found depth is enough to see the club through August. And with one or both players seeming likely to start next Saturday's match against Bolton on the bench, it would be best for everybody to keep that in mind no matter the results in the short term.

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