I’ve held out on writing a first piece on Brendan Rodger’s appointment and a last piece on Dirk Kuyt’s Liverpool career, because I’ve wanted to organize my thoughts on both. (That, and I’ve been extremely busy for the last few weeks, but of course that’s irrelevant here. Somewhat.)
So, first, a warm welcome to Brendan Rodgers, and a fond farewell to Dirk Kuyt.
Let’s talk about Dirk Kuyt.
He’s been a staple in the Liverpool side I’ve followed religiously over the past few years. There are endless tributes all over the print media, all over the Internet on Kuyt’s work-rate, his indefatigable stamina, his knack for being at the right place at the right time, his selflessness, his teamwork, his passion towards the Liverpool cause. There’s no need to further extol his virtues, if only because I’d only be beating a (nearly-) dead horse.
To me, Dirk Kuyt will be remembered as who he was – a Liverpool great – because he adapted.
And, while he played at center-forward, second striker, left winger, right winger – no, this isn’t a tribute to his versatility, but rather his mindset. Dirk Kuyt adapted.
When he first arrived from Feyenoord, where he set scoring records as an out-and-out striker, Kuyt adapted to the hustle and bustle of the Premier League.
Then, when Fernando Torres arrived, bringing with him that all-too-rare world-class ability to turn chances in goals, Kuyt was moved to the right wing without even making a noise. He continued to deliver his big game-winning strikers. He continued to defend from the front. He continued to time his runs to help break up the opposition defence. All from the right wing. He adapted.
You see – to me, there is an added mental dimension to adaptability.
It’s like Steven Gerrard, who moved to right-back in Istanbul to shut out AC Milan’s Serginho. He did that with the team in mind. He was moved out to the right side of midfield to facilitate a new tactical approach in the 2005-2006 season. He finished that season with his best ever goals tally. He moved up to second striker just to provide the finishing touch to a world-beating partnership spearheaded by Torres.
Sure, Gerrard is famous for publicly expressing his preference for a central midfield position. But when push comes to shove, Steven Gerrard adapts.
Sometimes this kind of attribute is considered to be at the detriment of the player himself. Kuyt was never considered a world-class right-winger during his time at Liverpool. Gerrard has been used in all kinds of positions and had been overlooked as England captain all these years.
But those of us who step back once in a while recognize this adaptability. And we reserve the highest kinds of tributes for these players.
Enter Brendan Rodgers.
It’s been an impressive first week at Anfield for Rodgers, no doubt. He’s made all the right noises, impressing upon us fans the kind of approach he wants to bring to Liverpool and outlining the fact that he has the experience to take Liverpool up to the top.
All of which is well and good, but ultimately it counts for nothing if you can’t adapt to the job.
Rafa Benitez adapted. He came from Valencia looking for a challenge, and he got it with a sub-par Liverpool squad whose quality was reflected in a fifth-place league finish. Yet he worked with a squad containing the likes of Djimi Traore and Igor Biscan, and took home a Champions League trophy in his first season.
He studied his opponents and adapted his gameplans specifically against them. He brought in new players to add new options to the team, he revamped the youth academy, and he grew as a member of the Liverpool community.
Now, it didn’t always work – how many times were we frustrated when Torres got subbed around the 70-minute mark when Liverpool needed a goal? What about when he publicly pursued Gareth Barry at the expense of Xabi Alonso? What about when he persisted with a yet-to-mature Lucas?
But Benitez adapted. A look back on his record at Liverpool showed that, if anything, given the ownership situation during his reign, Benitez adapted, all right.
Roy Hodgson didn’t. He failed to grasp that Liverpool, hoping to climb their way back up the Premier League table following an underwhelming season, weren’t looking for underwhelming signings clearly not up to Top Four standard. He failed to grasp that a safety-first approach, while it worked at mid-table Fulham, wouldn’t be enough to satisfy the ever-demanding Kop. He failed to grasp that a defensive and conciliatory media personality didn’t fit with the bullish continental profile that a modern Liverpool want.
Kenny Dalglish, too, didn’t. Entering the Liverpool all-time records for Top Five most expensive signings four times in six months wasn’t what we were looking for. Nor was persisting with those same players when more clinical and experienced options were sat on the bench. Nor was adopting a confrontational approach to the media.
Unfortunately, in hindsight, Hodgson and Dalglish’s departures, while under different circumstances, were understandable and inevitable.
Whether or not Rodgers’ appointment is a useful solution depends very much on how he can adapt.
He knows that John Henry’s preference is to build a squad on bargain signings. He did that at Swansea. But while we don’t need an Andy Carroll or a Luis Suarez every transfer window, perhaps free transfers like Mohamed Diame aren’t enough. Look to the capital for a £10-million Lukas Podolski or a £7-million Marko Marin for a perfect example of cost-effective ambition.
He knows that everyone’s preference is to play good football. He did that at Swansea. But during the journey to become England’s answer to Barcelona, perhaps a balance has to be made in view of goals, victories and points. Just because Andy Carroll is a traditional British targetman doesn’t mean he can’t fit into a multi-faceted Liverpool side, as so many pundits are suggesting. Arsenal, whose penchant for attractive football is legendary, hoofed it long to Robin van Persie this season. That’s how they scored both their goals in their 2-1 win at Anfield.
Most of all, Brendan Rodgers knows that ultimately, it’s up to him to do his talking on the pitch. His last stint at a Top Four challenger was as an assistant at Chelsea. He will have to adapt to being top dog at Anfield.
He said in a recent interview that there are three kinds of Liverpool fans: the ones that support the manager regardless of results; the ones that need to be convinced by results; and the ones that can never come round.
I’m a proud, unabashed member of the second club.
All you have to do, Mr. Rodgers, is adapt and show that you can lead Liverpool forward.
It’ll be a hell of task.