Liverpool remains a work in progress
The debate continues. The difficulty with assessing Liverpool's performance this season is that no one is agreed on what its initial target was. For the other teams at the top of the league, it was simple: The two Manchester clubs wanted the title; Arsenal and Tottenham were looking to secure a Champions League place; while Chelsea was somewhere in between, focusing on rebuilding its squad under a new manager.
Liverpool is trickier. A top-four place would have constituted a success, but what is considered a failure? Liverpool finished in sixth place in 2010-11, despite a disastrous first half of the season under Roy Hodgson. The Reds are currently in seventh. Failing to match last season's performance after considerable spending on players in the summer would prompt serious questions from outside Liverpool about Kenny Dalglish's future, but within the club there would be a vocal section of fans who are content that Liverpool is playing more enjoyable football under a club legend like Dalglish than under Hodgson.
We don't yet have to consider the fallout from a seventh-place finish -- and besides, Liverpool is only one point behind Arsenal and Newcastle. But it acts as a microcosm of the situation surrounding Liverpool, as the club's performance will be viewed very differently by its own fans compared to the wider footballing public.
It seems appropriate, then, that Liverpool is in the final of the Carling Cup, the competition that no one is sure whether they care about. Fans of big clubs generally have little regard for the tournament, though they doubtless get excited when their side reaches the final. And so, as the debate will rage on, the perception of Liverpool's season will differ wildly. If Liverpool defeats Cardiff in the final, supporters will quite reasonably point to their first trophy since 2006 and their first appearance at the new Wembley. Rival fans will sneer at the idea that the Carling Cup is worth anything.
This is the classic us-versus-them mentality that managers of big clubs often try to create. Sir Alex Ferguson is a master of it, and Dalglish favors a similar approach. For such a debate to occur implies some level of success, as well as evidence of fear and resentment from the fans of other clubs. No one's bothered about clubs that offer little threat to their own. Throughout the Tom Hicks and George Gillett saga, Liverpool came dangerously close to attracting sympathy from outsiders. Sympathy is usually felt for midtable, non-threatening clubs, not one with as proud a history as Liverpool.
Part of that history includes a good record in the Carling Cup, in its many guises. No club has won the competition more than Liverpool, a record it will doubtless be keen to extend. And rightly so: The significance of the trophy itself is debatable, but the impact it can have on the rest of the season is not. Claude Makelele once said, when reflecting on his career in England, that Chelsea's determination to go out and win the first trophy available put the Blues in the right frame of mind for the crucial final months of the season.
Arsenal's late collapse to Birmingham City in last season's Carling Cup final was a huge blow to its campaign. It went into the final having won seven and drawn three of its previous 10 league games; after the defeat in the final, it won just two of its final 11, and soon crashed out of the other two competitions. The feeling of missed opportunity around the club shouldn't be underestimated. Liverpool has rarely played poorly this season, but it has rarely picked up the results its dominance of games should bring. Of all the statistics about the club this season -- and the "Moneyball" link has been slightly overplayed -- the following is the most shocking: Only Stoke, Wigan and Everton have scored fewer goals from open play than Liverpool, which has managed just 12. Much of that is down to poor finishing, with Andy Carroll struggling for form. But Dirk Kuyt is also a culprit, having not scored so far this season in the league.
Liverpool's problem is that it neither possesses many excellent individuals nor has a particularly harmonious side. Defensively, the Reds are fine. Deep in midfield they have the best holding player in the league once Lucas returns from injury, but ahead of that, it's something of a mess.
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When Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing were brought in at the same time, the idea was that the players would get to know each other's game and become a solid, cohesive unit, which would have a multiplier effect upon their individual qualities. That, frankly, is needed. Adam is a talented player, but one with limitations -- specifically, his mobility and consistency. Downing is decent but very much someone who serves others, while Henderson is promising but very raw. None are top-class players -- for now, they need to be in a system that suits them.
And, of course, this is a long-term project. They've been together for only two-thirds of a season, so to criticize them now denies them the opportunity to forge that understanding, that collective identity. But Dalglish needs to be a little more consistent with his team selection. They are impossible to predict -- and even when you see the starting XI, you're never quite sure what shape it's going to be. That can be a fantastic weapon for a coach looking to outfox his opposite number. But at the moment, the constant changing seems to be outfoxing Liverpool's own players, as Dalglish acknowledged when defending Downing.
"I don't think it has been too comfortable for him, because we have played him in three or four positions," Dalglish said. "So maybe we need to look at ourselves and say we have to be fair to him as well." If it's affecting Downing, you wonder if it's affecting other players. Kuyt has played up front but also on the right -- he's clearly better in the latter position. Craig Bellamy has been excellent up front -- he was the best player in the semifinal win over Manchester City this week -- but sometimes gets shoved out to the left. Henderson has started on the right and in the center roughly an equal number of times.
Even those broadly played in the same position often take on different roles. Adam, for example, is now having to play deeper without a holding player to protect him. Luis Suarez sometimes leads the line himself, then has to change his game and play off Carroll. Variation is good, but too much can be a problem -- a problem that shouldn't be brushed under the carpet if Liverpool wins the Carling Cup.
At least, that's the view from the outside.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.