Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Roy Hodgson: Not so great expectations

AS people who still believe Roy Hodgson is the right man for the job at Liverpool are finding out, defending the indefensible is nigh on impossible.

Hodgson's crime sheet while in charge at Anfield is long and well-known: his signings, his football, his treatment of players, his public gaffes and his cringe-worthy press conferences. Not to mention results, or rather lack of them (although there's plenty of players who have underperformed under two different managers who should shoulder a share of the responsibility).

But of all the things Hodgson has got wrong, most annoying is his constant attempts to play down expectations and create a culture where mediocrity becomes acceptable. He was at it again when talking about Fulham.

At the time of the press conference, Hodgson's old club had won two games from 17 in the Premier League.

They hadn't won away (surprise, surprise) and won only once on the road last season under the man now in the hotseat at Anfield.

The Cottagers' record in terms of points gained away from home when Hodgson spoke out was the same as Liverpool's: five.

The goals scored away record was the same, too: six. Fulham were only keeping their noses out of the relegation zone because of a superior goal difference compared to Wigan.

All in all, they are a team Liverpool should beat.

The Reds' home record this season is better than Arsenal's and Fulham haven't won at Anfield in 29 attempts. Yet Hodgson can't help himself.

It seems it is part of his make-up to prepare for the worst, to pave the way for failure, sow the seed of doubt: “I’m very wary of the game because they are a hard team to beat. In fact they have lost even less games in the league than we have so we know it’s going to be tough.”

Can't the manager of Liverpool concentrate on the positives of his own team? Isn't the Liverpool team, even in its current state, a class apart from Fulham's?

Stifling negativity

Hodgson just does not exude confidence in public and fans can only hope he is not the same behind closed doors at Melwood and Anfield. His stifling negativity is in stark contrast to, for example, Bolton manager Owen Coyle.

Ok, Coyle is at a club where expectations are lower, the pressure is less and the spotlight is not quite so glaring. But nevertheless, he has turned a Bolton side that was struggling near the relegation zone into one that is challenging for Europe. And with a minimal outlay in the transfer market.

Some of Coyle's recent line-ups have been identical to those fielded by predecessor Gary Megson aside from Stuart Holden (a freebie signing from the MLS). But what is refreshing about Coyle is his approach.

There's no face-rubbing, scowling, or playing down of expectations, Coyle just tries to win – whoever his team is facing. Most of the time he does it with a smile on his face and he's got a good relationship with the media, too.

I'm not saying Coyle should be Liverpool manager – he's still relatively inexperienced and has no pedigree in European competition. But it would be nice if Roy could take a leaf out of his book when it comes to his general approach (I won't be holding my breath).

When Coyle first took over at Burnley one fan commented on his impact: “Eleven points from his first five games and fans were already shouting his name! All the games we were clearly dominant.

“Compared with Cotterill's tactics he had switched a moderately defensive team into one hell of an attacking force overnight and not just against the average bunch of relegation strugglers. Wolves, Watford and Charlton were in the first five and they were top six when we played them!”

Players too, have been quick to praise Coyle after working with him. Andy Cole, who played under Coyle while on loan to Burnley, said: “I cannot say enough superlatives about him. His enthusiasm made me feel like I was 21 again.”

But Coyle himself summed up his approach: “Each and every game we enter we try to win - and to do so by playing a style pleasing on the eye with chances being created and goals being scored.”

Could Hodgson put his hand on his heart and say the same? Of course he couldn't.

Liverpool players are known to be disillusioned with Hodgson's approach, fans have long since grown tired of the safety-first tactics (laughably instilled even in the dead rubber against Utrecht) and Hodgson is yet to hear his name sung by the Kop.

Those that advocate persevering with Hodgson are quick to highlight why Liverpool's current plight isn't his fault – he inherited the majority of the squad, the team had a poor away record last season, he hasn't had a real opportunity to spend and so on. All true, but missing the point.

Hodgson isn't the only reason for the failures this season, just as Rafa Benitez wasn't the only reason for the failures last season. But Hodgson was supposed to get more from the players at the club – organise them, improve them – that was the whole idea behind his appointment wasn't it?

Hodgson is now also benefiting from a stabilised off-field situation. Yet all he has done is verse Liverpool players in a style unsuited to many of them and an approach that long-term only seems to lend itself to a lowering of sights.

Good track record?

On appointing Hodgson, then chairman Martin Broughton said: “We weren't looking so much for somebody who was just emerging, we wanted somebody who could, first and foremost, command the respect of the players, who had a good track record and could take us forward from where we are now.

“He wanted to focus on how he could get more out of the existing players. His focus wasn't on 'how much money can I have?' or 'I want to bring this person in or that person in' - he was really focused on 'I believe, and I've got a track record that demonstrates it, that I can take the existing players, get much better performances out of them and buy constructively to build for a better future.'”

Well whereas Liverpool still clung on to hopes of a top four spot until the end stages of last season, that feat is already looking out of reach this campaign. Only the poor quality of the league this season offers a chink of hope that Liverpool can sneak in with a late run.

That of course would require an improvement away from home, a more balls-out approach coupled with more consistent effort from the players. Going away and trying not to get beat is not good enough for Liverpool - it's not even good enough for Bolton.

Coyle once said he would try and beat his kids if he played them at tiddlywinks. You get the feeling Hodgson would settle for a draw.

Liverpool need a manager who can instil players with confidence, motivate his stars, convince fans with his rhetoric and make the most of the resources available to him. A new manager, the right manager, can make a difference. Hodgson was never the right manager – his CV says so.

Returning to the Bolton example for a final time, look at Johan Elmander. Labelled a expensive flop under Megson, all of sudden he is a player reborn under Coyle. He said himself when comparing the two managers: “It doesn't help to stare and scream at me. I got tired the more of it I heard.

“Owen Coyle is a great coach, who I really enjoy working with. As soon as he came to the club I started to play well, even though the goals didn't come right away.”

Gretar Steinsson, another Megson signing, said: "It's totally different from the first years when I was here, being in a team that actually believe they can get points against the strong sides instead of just hoping for a draw."

Inspiration and positive approach

Liverpool and NESV do not have to accept mediocrity. They shouldn't be happy with a plucky defeat at Spurs or progress in Europe's second-rate competition. The squad is capable of more – 11 of the 23 players that achieved Liverpool's best away record in the past 20 years are still on the books.

And while Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano have left, Raul Meireles and Glen Johnson have joined. The wage bill alone at Liverpool should dictate a certain level of success.

Perhaps inspiration and a positive approach could make the difference. Sadly, the likelihood is we'll never know the answer to that question under Hodgson.

Asked about Liverpool's poor form away, he recently said: “If you ask me why, when we have such a good set of quality players, then the only true answer is I wish I knew. There should be no reason, because we have a team that can win away from home.”

So Roy is looking at the players, knowing they're good enough, yet puzzled by why they are not performing. Perhaps the players are looking at Roy, knowing he's not good enough and that's why they are not performing.