Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool Lose: Same Result But a World of Difference

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2011

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 09:  Liverpool Manager Kenny Dalglish salutes the fans prior to the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON 3rd round match between Manchester United and Liverpool at Old Trafford on January 9, 2011 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Kenny Dalglish tasted defeat in his return to management with Liverpool today as they were beaten 1-0 in the F.A. Cup third round against Manchester United, but Liverpool fans have much to be pleased about in spite of the loss.

The Reds have now suffered defeat in four of their last six games, but today's performance, line-up and in-game approach was a million miles away from the languid, inept and gutless losses to the likes of Wolves and Blackburn Rovers.

With Dalglish back on the Liverpool bench the travelling support were in full voice before, during and after the game, while the build up to the game had an excitement and expectation about it which had arguably been missing for Reds around the globe since the opening day of the 2009/10 season.

'King' Kenny made several changes to the starting line-up for his first match in charge of his beloved club since February 1991, with Agger, Aurelio and Kuyt restored to the first eleven. Youngster Martin Kelly also came in at right back with Glen Johnson absent as his wife was giving birth. Joe Cole was missing with an ankle injury.

ITV's poor analysis of the team before kick off did indeed suggest Meireles would start on the right of midfield, with Kuyt up front, though it was never an option against United as Liverpool reverted to something akin to last season's 4:2:3:1 formation.

It wasn't just on paper we saw an immediate difference in Liverpool though, as the performance on the pitch was markedly improved on anything we've seen recently from the same players who played today.

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Despite suffering the blow early on of Agger's challenge on Berbatov being adjudged a penalty after just thirty seconds, and Giggs dispatching the resulting spot kick past Reina a minute later, Liverpool worked themselves back into the fixture over the next thirty minutes with good pressure on the United midfield, controlled passing and brave attempts to get numbers forward, most notably down the right hand side as Kelly and Kuyt linked well on several occasions to get behind United full back Patrice Evra.

Gerrard, Meireles and Lucas were deployed in a much more fluid central alignment to recent games, while Meireles made some good early movements through the centre of the home side's midfield without Liverpool losing their shape, as has been the case when the Portuguese schemer has been forced out to the right side of midfield.

Fabio Aurelio and Daniel Agger's return to the defence immediately saw an improved distribution in the ball from Liverpool's back line as the Reds for much of the first half tried to play their way back into the game.

However, on the half-hour mark Liverpool's hopes of progressing to the fourth round were dealt a severe blow as captain Steven Gerrard saw red for a lunging tackle on Michael Carrick, and despite winning the ball referee Howard Webb dismissed Gerrard, leaving Liverpool to see out the remaining hour of the game with 10 men.

Of course, after that it was always going to be a difficult ask for the Reds to get anything out of the game, but the most pleasing aspect from a Liverpool perspective was the continual emphasis on at least trying to get back into the game.

How often during Roy Hodgson's reign did we see him encouraging his team, asking them to get the ball down and play it, making early, aggressive substitutions to wrest back control of the game and, no less, making all three of his available changes to try and influence the game?

Dalglish today did all of those things, and more.

In terms of the players, Reina was like a man possessed, making no less than six saves and blocks in less than ten seconds during one period of defending in the second half, while Skrtel and Agger made several impressive challenges and blocks in defence.

The lack of cohesion and understanding in defence which has plagued Liverpool's past fixtures was rarely in evidence today—something that, while tactically can hardly be credited to Dalglish, who's prematch time to talk with the players cannot have far exceeded an hour, but in terms of the confidence and belief—and sense of renewal perhaps—this can certainly be attributed to the legendary Scot.

Not all factions of Liverpool's team worked today; Meireles' passing game went awry in the second half and Fernando Torres, while full of endeavour at times is of course still not the Torres of old, Maxi disappeared after the sending-off and Skrtel still made his customary needless fouls, but the support, the belief and the sense of Liverpool being in safe hands was all well and truly in evidence.

The passing game for which Liverpool have long been renowned was present for much more of the game than might have been expected a day after Dalglish's return—or perhaps more accurately a day after Hodgson's departure—but the deep-lying defence, the looking for the flick on behind a centre back were no teammates run and the full backs not bombing forward at every opportunity will all take time to flush from the system.

Training for professional teams is much-based on repetition: teams do not practice having a deep-lying defence once and then do it for the rest of the season in games. Likewise, switching out of this practice and using the best abilities of our players—such as passing to feet and pressing further up the pitch—will all take a few training sessions to get back into the psyche of the players.

This was a day of defeat for Liverpool, and after all a defeat which signals the end of our F.A. Cup involvement and the opportunity to compete for a trophy.

But it was not a day of exasperation (unless directed at Howard Webb), of frustration, of anger and even of embarrassment.

It was a day to be proud of our football club and to believe in the new direction we may be headed.

Suffering a one-nil defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford is not nice for any Liverpool supporter, nor should it be. But as Reds manager Dalglish said after the final whistle, he could not fault for effort the players or supporters. And that is what we ask of our team.

You get the feeling Hodgson may have been happy with a one-nil loss to United, and indeed would probably have wished them well on their journey to win the league, such was his lack of understanding of what was required in the Liverpool job.

And while no-one connected with the club will be satisfied in defeat, we will at least be satisfied that the club is back on the right tracks and headed towards better times.

In this defeat to United Liverpool arguably performed better than in draws with Utrecht and Birmingham, and the response of the supporters will reflect that.

King Kenny is back. Soon enough, so will be the belief and performances of his team. And the Liverpool supporters will be alongside them all helping to get there.

You can follow me on Twitter: @karlmatchett

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