Dalglish talks up Liverpool progress – but is short on points
Under different management, it is the kind of run which would have invited some ironic chanting from the Anfield Road end: Kenny Dalglish's five points from 24 being four fewer than Roy Hodgson garnered in his last eight games as Liverpool manager.
But ahead of a derby encounter which could see his side fall behind Everton in the Premier League, Dalglish yesterday dismissed the notion that this tally was symptomatic of an underlying malaise and launched an impassioned defence of his achievements in the past 14 months.
It was after the home defeat to Arsenal, which has contributed to Liverpool's first three-game losing streak since the Gérard Houllier era, that Dalglish suggested that it would be "disappointing" if that game were judged on points. In the course of arguing that the stability he has restored since succeeding Hodgson transcends all else, points were almost an afterthought on his list of the prerequisites of success.
"I don't think there's any reason why anyone would say there's not been progress made," Dalglish said. "You go off the pitch and see how much monies we are getting through sponsorship, kit deals. You go through the academy and look at how much better it is. You look around here and most of the people have got a smile on their faces now. As you have said yourselves the squad is stronger than it was last year. What other areas are there to improve upon – apart from points?"
Liverpool, 10 points adrift of the fourth spot and Champions League place their American owners have said they want for their £105m investment, happen to have parted company with their commercial manager, Graham Bartlett, in the past week, though Dalglish invoked the old boot-room principles of unity and solidarity which is his strong suit. "I think the progress in a short space of time both on and off the pitch has been credible to anybody," he said. "Throughout any progression there's always going to be disappointments but I think the principles are 100 per cent correct.
"We've got to stick with them and I think we've got to believe in them and I think we do. As we've said before and you yourselves have written it: the club now is what it was before. Each one for each one. Everybody is in it together. Everybody works hard together. Everybody sticks to their own job and does their own job as well as they possibly can. That's not changed."
Even as he spoke, news was surfacing from a Canal Plus interview which could be taken as evidence that Liverpool's players do not cling to the club as unfailingly as in Dalglish's first era at Anfield, when the "Liverpool Way" held sway. Luis Suarez has told the French TV channel that he likes the idea of playing alongside his compatriot Diego Lugano, of Paris St-Germain, a club who covet his services and whose Qatari owners could certainly afford them.
This was discomfiting. "He gave an interview for Lugano," Dalglish suggested. "[Lugano] has only played 10 games this year. Maybe he's trying to get him a game!" But the relentless negative noises – Arsène Wenger being the latest to suggest Suarez dives – cannot be escaping the Uruguayan, even though Dalglish suggested the Football Association should discipline the Arsenal manager for his words. "I'm sure the FA will look into that and take him to task," he said.
The prospect of entering next season without Suarez is certainly not a pleasant one for Liverpool and the Champions League football PSG should be playing may provide an enticement which will very likely be missing at Anfield, where, in league terms, it is proving a real struggle to make any inroads.
Liverpool are locked on the identical points tally from 27 games that they had yielded this time last year, when they sat a place higher in sixth, the same position as in Rafael Benitez's difficult last season, when they had six points more from the equivalent league matches. Suarez has been their one game-changing player though it does seem unclear whether this season of controversy will leave him craving an escape from a country which has not brought out the best in him on the field of play.
An analysis of the conversion of Liverpool's "clear-cut chances", by analyst Dan Kennett, working with Opta data, shows that this season Suarez has converted only 24 per cent of these gilt-edged opportunities – typically an open goal, penalty or free header in the six-yard box – from which 50 per cent of all Premier League goals originate. Anything over 44 per cent is good, by Kennett's analysis, and less than 32 per cent is poor. Suarez is still better than his team-mates: Andy Carroll, with two clear chances converted from 11 opportunities is next best among Dalglish's strikers.
These misses have cost Liverpool dear. They have dropped points in 17 of their 27 league matches this season and in eight of those there were at least two clear chances created. The only consolation for Liverpool tonight is that Everton are even more barren – one of only four teams this season who have scored fewer than Liverpool's 30 goals, with no striker faring better than Suarez on the clear-chances chart.
Curiously, Liverpool have never beaten Everton in a weekday league game at Anfield under floodlights, though one of the characteristics of Dalglish's first full season back in charge has been his ability to raise his side for the big games where the support base really desires victory – the two Manchester sides and Arsenal will vouch for that, even though they have all escaped with at least a point. Dalglish's decision to rest Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher for what proved to be a torrid afternoon at Sunderland on Saturday reflects his priorities, too. This man of the people knows that tonight does matter more than the points tally.
Publicly, Gerrard appeared more unsettled yesterday about the club's form than Dalglish. "The players need to take responsibility for where we are in the league," he said. "It's just not good enough for a club like us to be there. We have to find a better level of consistency." But Dalglish deflected his captain's comments, returning to a recent theme about the lack of luck experienced by a club who have hit the post 21 times. "Aye with VAT, more times than that," he said.
"Look at any game. It doesn't matter about the scoreline. There's always a wee bit of luck somewhere for someone which has probably changed the game. They say it evens itself out over the season. There are 10 games to go and that's a fair part of the season, plus the FA Cup. If you want to determine success or progress with points, I suppose if you beat last season's some people think you're in a better position. If not some will say it's worse. Do you take it in terms of silverware...?"
He didn't answer his own question but with defeat tonight and an FA Cup quarter-final exit to Stoke City on Sunday an outcome which would leave Dalglish in something of a crisis, last month's Carling Cup triumph which he promised would be a springboard is looking like a rather significant insurance policy instead.