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Mar 29, 2012

Liverpool's flawed four

It is the best part of half a century since Merseyside's major exports were dubbed 'The Fab Four'. Now, in a city whose global fame owes as much to goals as guitars, another quartet are attracting attention, albeit in unwanted fashion. The gruesome foursome of Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam are more beaten than Beatles. Directly or indirectly, many of Liverpool's failings can be traced back to them.

Expenditure increases expectations, a rule that only football managers appear unable to grasp and, after the cash-starved mediocrity of the previous two seasons, Liverpool committed an initial £78.5 million, potentially rising to £84.5 million, for the four failures.

As they find themselves with fewer points than at the equivalent stage of the last two campaigns, it seems expensive regression. That, in turn, reflects poorly on Kenny Dalglish and the whole policy of buying British. If the unanswered question is how that windfall should have been spent, an unarguable conclusion is simply "better".

It is a misguided spending spree that affects not just Liverpool's present but their future. If Dalglish is not trusted with more money by owners Fenway Sports Group, it is understandable. If Liverpool have to sell before they buy in the summer, they must take a hefty hit on supposed investments.

Analyse their failings on the field and most can be attributed to the less-than-fab four. To the fact that none seems to possess the temperament Liverpool require, the ability to prosper under scrutiny which is needed at Anfield. And Liverpool have been poor at home, winning only five league games.

That, in turn, is a consequence of a lack of goals. Luis Suarez is often identified as a culprit but the electric Uruguayan's tally of 12 would be less of an issue if Carroll had 15 or 20. Instead, the target man has a mere six. Now he has been demoted to the bench, Dalglish presumably concluding that, rather than complementing Suarez, he gets in the South American's way. When a side struggles to score, the sight of a £35 million forward among the replacements is an obvious symptom of poor recruitment.

A focus on the strikers, however, obscures the fact the midfielders contribute too few goals. Between them, Downing, Henderson and Adam have five in 110 games this season, and one of those was a penalty. In contrast, the under-used Maxi Rodriguez has four in his limited opportunities and Raul Meireles, shunted out of the back door, managed five in half a season under Dalglish last year. That Downing, a £20 million winger, has neither scored nor created a league goal is an extraordinary embarrassment.

The faith shown in all three calls Dalglish's judgment into doubt. Henderson is Liverpool's most used outfield player with Downing and Adam not far behind. Maxi, Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt have been granted too few starts. That the Dutchman, arguably Liverpool's finest performer last season, was a substitute on the opening day while Carroll, Downing, Adam and Henderson all started seemed unfair. That Bellamy, monumental in the Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City, was omitted for the showpiece smacked of favouritism.

Perhaps, for Dalglish, it was a quest for vindication, so his employers could see his signings deliver silverware. To others, it sent out the wrong sort of message: that Liverpool is no longer a meritocracy. The manager's preference is to discuss the side, rather than individuals, but collective responsibility protects the weakest links. And usually, they tend to be his expensive additions.

Moreover, attributing triumphs to the whole team is often incorrect. While, until recent setbacks, the defence was functioning well as a unit, Liverpool have been reliant upon individuals, whether Bellamy, Suarez or Steven Gerrard, for an injection of inspiration, drive or dynamism when attacking. With those notable exceptions, they lack pace going forward: signing four players of at best average speed - even though Dalglish strangely suggested Downing is both quicker and better than he thought when buying him - hardly helped.

It is important to consider the players jettisoned to make way for them. Few tears were shed when Joe Cole was loaned to Lille, but he is enjoying a better season than any of the quartet. More pertinently, the gifted Alberto Aquilani and Meireles, a qualified success at Anfield if not Stamford Bridge, were exiled for lesser talents in Adam and Henderson. The departed duo might have offered more penetrative passing.

The impression is that Dalglish did not believe the Portuguese was capable of shielding the back four. Yet Adam is no defensive midfielder - slow, a poor tackler and with questionable positional sense - while Liverpool appear unsure what Henderson, at fault for goals in the last two games, is. In a department where Gerrard and Lucas are vastly superior to the other alternatives, their injuries have disrupted Liverpool's season. But pricey understudies should have compensated better; instead, it seems the captain reins himself in, given added responsibility because of his colleagues' deficiencies.

It comes at a cost. Gerrard is one of the few matchwinners. Carroll, Downing, Henderson and Adam lack his capacity to control or determine a game. Despite a combined outlay of almost £80 million, it is doubtful if any have deserved to be Liverpool's man of the match once this season (Downing received the official award in the Carling Cup final, but Martin Skrtel would have been a worthier choice). Were they not at Anfield, it is hard to imagine any of them getting in the top five teams apart from in an injury crisis; in many situations, they would not even merit a place on the bench.

They are reasons, although Liverpool have won one trophy and could yet make it two, that this has been a wasted year in the league and a missed opportunity. The fall-out from the faulty foursome's purchase and poor performance could be considerable. Some fans blame Damien Comolli - although with his greater knowledge of European football, it is probable he also suggested candidates from the continent - but Dalglish is definitely diminished; partly by overseeing their arrival, partly by his rhetoric in defending them and partly by the way others have been elbowed aside to promote players who, simply, are not good enough for Liverpool.

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