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Sep 16, 2010

Roy following Rafa blueprint

The stock answers that were repeated ad infinitum have been replaced by detailed explanations delivered in a brand of English honed in the 1950s, Scandinavians may be succeeding Spaniards as this season's preferred accessory and there have been the customary criticisms of some of his predecessor's players, but there may be reasons Roy Hodgson's regime at Liverpool feels somewhat familiar.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Hodgson is not a doppelganger for Rafa Benitez, but there are distinct similarities in their management. Most obvious is a preference for a formation that can be described as 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1. Benitez's fondness for twin holding midfielders became infamous and, in pairing Christian Poulsen with Lucas in Liverpool's last two league games, Hodgson has adopted a similar policy. Worryingly, for those who demonise the Brazilian, Poulsen even looks like Lucas Mk II from a distance.

The greatest change appeared to be signalled by Steven Gerrard's deployment in a deeper role against Arsenal, aided by Joe Cole's arrival. But the latter's three-match ban has allowed Liverpool to revisit their past, with the captain serving as the support act to Fernando Torres.

The issue of their importance is a constant from one era to another. Arguably, it has been exacerbated by Javier Mascherano's departure. While it may yet be alleviated by Cole or Raul Meireles, the likelihood is that Hodgson will have to field questions about a continued dependence upon two match-winners. They may stay inseparable both in the public perception and on the pitch.

Playing two out-and-out strikers, something Benitez was reluctant to do, was swiftly abandoned after his successor started David Ngog and Fernando Torres at Manchester City. There is a school of thought that Cole will end up either on the flank or the bench with the alliance of Gerrard and Torres remaining undisturbed.

Meanwhile, Hodgson's inability to add a forward in the summer echoed Benitez's failure to strengthen his attack 12 months before. The derided pair of Ngog and Ryan Babel represent the unattractive alternatives to Torres - and Hodgson, like Benitez, appears to rank the Frenchman ahead of the costlier Dutchman.

Look at his supply line and a glance at the flanks appears familiar. Tactical discipline is a priority for both managers, and their idea of a winger is less a free spirit than a man who provides his full backs with dependable cover. On the left, Milan Jovanovic, whose move was instigated by Benitez but completed under Hodgson, resembles Albert Riera; industrious but, thus far, uninventive. On the right, a shared appreciation of the resident marathon runner Dirk Kuyt perplexes some but Liverpool managers past and present conducted a public tug of war for the diligent Dutchman while a section of the support would have happily ushered him on to a Milan-bound plane.

For both coaches, however, the notion of two banks of four is entrenched. It amounts to an essentially counter-attacking gameplan that leaves them open to accusations of caution. In a quest for solidity, each signed a left back from his former club: Valencia's Fabio Aurelio joining Benitez, and Fulham's Paul Konchesky following Hodgson north. Both managers have displayed an eagerness to raid familiar markets - Spain for Benitez, Craven Cottage and, with the arrival of Poulsen and the interest in Ola Toivonen, Scandinavia for Hodgson.

Different backgrounds nonetheless include a common ethos. Hodgson was among the British coaches who exported theories about the four-man defence and midfield to Sweden more than three decades ago; Benitez was hugely influenced by Arrigo Sacchi, who abandoned the sweeper system and played 4-4-2 at AC Milan.

The likenesses extend to results. Liverpool have defeated West Brom, on a sabbatical from the Premier League last season, but their other three fixtures, as in the previous campaign, have produced two points. This season, like last, a draw at Birmingham has been deemed dispiriting.

Some alterations, such as the switch from zonal to man-marking at set-pieces, have been implemented but the first impressions are that Liverpool's new era is reminiscent of the old one.

That could be explained by Hodgson's essential pragmatism but, regardless of football philosophies, a sound logic underpins his thinking. Liverpool's financial problems have been extensively documented and their need for a swift return to the Champions League is obvious.

Moreover, Hodgson's appointment at Anfield wasn't officially ratified until July. Upon inheriting Benitez's team, he had neither the budget nor the time to rip it up and start again. Such a process could have been costly and risked taking the club backwards in the short term. It was something Gerard Houllier was allowed to do, but the circumstances have changed.

In addition, Liverpool's predicament, on and off the field, means recruiting players of the calibre of Gerrard and Torres is unlikely and, in turn, reinforces their significance. The issues are a constant - it is only a few of the faces that have changed.

And while Benitez became a hugely divisive figure, attracting the undying loyalty of some and the unrelenting enmity of others, that Hodgson shares many of the same ideas should serve both to endear and alienate him. Liverpool no longer have the sense of stability that plucking managers from the Boot Room brought, but it is continuity of sorts.

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