Ultimately, Kenny Dalglish’s image will be untarnished by his Liverpool return, though there were enough high profile setbacks to justify a minor addendum to his legacy. The team owners explicitly targeted Champions League, a goal few though unreasonable. Some even picked Liverpool to compete for the title, but they didn’t. They never even pushed for top four. Along the way, they more-readily wrapping themselves in Suárez-driven race controversy than inspiring soccer. Perhaps if some of the players had stepped up, the potholes wouldn’t have defined a trophy-winning season; then again, you can’t separate the manager from that.
Who in Liverpool’s squad exceeded expectations this season? It’s a great way to measure managerial quality, yet man-for-man, when you look at this team and ask “Did Kenny get the most out of him”, the answer is always no. Some of the players most-readily associated with Dalglish’s approval (Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam) proved to be the biggest disappointments.
Tactically reactive, unable to generate goals, Liverpool never looked the part of a team that spent over $190 million last summer. Perhaps most embarrassingly, the new-look Reds – looking all Moneyball-y amid their new management team and the financial backing that came with it – finished behind cross-towners Everton, a team who’s losing talent (Mikel Arteta) as fast as they can acquire it (Nikica Jelavic). The rivalry on Mersey aside, the Toffees are a benchmark: If you’re an affluent club and can’t eclipse them, you’re doing something wrong.
And Liverpool is clearly doing something wrong, though not all of that can conclusively be laid at Dalglish’s. We don’t exactly know what the dynamic between him and Damien Camolli (now-departed) was. Still, we know Dalglish had final approval on all moves, and as the new faces started to arrival at Anfield this summer, the Reds started to look like a team that was being built in some mid-90s, early 2000s image was assumed Dalglish retained from his last spell in the Premier League.
Which is exactly how they played. In today’s league, there’s an urgency around the top of the table that’s difficult to describe in last century’s terms. Liverpool never embraced that urgency. They would be their plucky best against the league’s top sides while playing miserably against the rest. It was a Europe-first attitude from a club that wasn’t in Europe and has lost the right to think like Real and Milan.
For the third straight year, Liverpool will be out of Champions League, having fallen to their worst finish since 1993-94. However, they are still one of the world’s most prestigious clubs, playing into a question’s easy to answer: Is Dalglish the best manager Liverpool could get? Certainly not.
But the whole discussion is a bit unfair to Dalglish. I feel it in my chest – the dull, lingering pain of guilt I get with I disrespect somebody. The man was asked by ownership to come in and right the ship after Roy Hodgson’s flat start. He clearly energized the squad in the winter of 2011.
But LFC should have left it at that. They should have taken the team’s minor resurgence and used it as reason to draw a name coach. Carlo Ancelotti? Like a glove. Still, those kind of choices are often too much to make when talking about a club icon.
John W. Henry’s thoughts reflect this.
“Kenny will always be more than a championship winning manager, more than a championship winning star player. He is in many ways the heart and soul of the club. He personifies everything that is good about Liverpool Football Club. He has always put the club and its supporters first. Kenny will always be a part of the family at Anfield.”
Dalglish has responded with similar magnanimity.
“While I am obviously disappointed to be leaving the football club, I can say that the matter has been handled by the owners and all concerned in an honorable, respectful and dignified way and reflects on the quality of the people involved and their continued desire to move the football club forward in the same way as when they arrived here.”
As Liverpool and Dalglish’s statements reflect, King Kenny has not be dethroned. If anything, he can sit more firmly on it. In the year before his appointment, there are been rumors of his angling to be the man that replaced Rafa Benítez prior to Hodgson’s appointment. These murmurs have long faded, and as Warner affirmed today, Dalglish was more servant than aspirant. If the Kop needed one thing in the wake of Hicks-Gillett, it was figurehead they knew would match their devotion to LFC.
Nobody’s going to begrudge him this year’s disappointing finish. His presence (along with delivering the League Cup) gave supporters a reason to love a club that, months before his arrival, as a signature away from bankruptcy. Is one season’s disappointment worth it, if you’re also putting one of club’s most depressing eras in the distant past? Definitely. Dalglish has provide hope, albiet unrequited.
Who’s next for Liverpool? Well, that’s kind of the point: Almost anybody. Papers in England have copied-and-pasted the Aston Villa candidate list into their Liverpool columns, linking Roberto Martínez, Paul Lambert and Brendan Rodgers. That seems more London’s wishlist than Anfield’s.
For John W. Henry and Tom Warner, this is their first major coaching search, one that will be approached with the same philosophies that underscore all of their sports ventures. Could that lead to a list of Fleet Street favorites? Perhaps. Could that also lead to Marcelo Bielsa, Luciano Spalletti, Jurgen Klopp and Frank de Boer? We’re all just guessing.