A Frank Assessment of Gerard Houllier (and the Men Tipped to Replace Him)

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 24, 2004, 03:56:58 PM

Despite serious doubts about him still being the right man for the job, and while thinking the time was probably right for a change, I am still very saddened by Gerard Houllier's departure.

Idolised by all Liverpool fans three years ago, it seems a shame that it has come to an end like this. Having touched upon some of the reasons behind the headlines proclaiming GH's dismissal last week, I thought I'd look more closely at where things went wrong, the doubts many had about his ability to take us any further, and why rumours about him leaving - which seemed a little fanciful at the time - have turned out to be true.  Then I will cast my eye to how we replace him. The men being touted are mostly English managers unproven in Europe, or European managers unproven in England, so finding a replacement may not be the easiest of choices for the board.
As mentioned in most tributes, GH is exceptional at laying the foundations - that was proved with France. He is very adept at instilling young men with the correct attitudes, and helping them to achieve their best levels of play as individuals. I'm not so sure he is the most skilled at forming a team that is balanced in all areas of the game, in the way Arsene Wenger has done so admirably at Arsenal, and that is where he seemed to fail. Personally, I think GH could have improved on the last two seasons, but I didn't see him taking us to the heights most fans demand, or perhaps even getting close (a good stab at the title is all I want at this point in time). But I do see someone else working wonders with the majority of the squad he leaves behind, and judging by his comments in the recent past, that is something Gerard will be equally proud of; and should that day come, I do hope he gets the credit for all the good things he left in place upon his departure.

In 1998, at the time of his arrival, GH had some positive qualities that may be lacking in anyone else we may now appoint from the continent: he spoke English upon arrival, he followed English football with avid interest, and he stood on the Kop as a young man living and teaching in the city of Liverpool (this last point being impossible for any other foreign manager to match up to).

He also had one advantage a new man won't: a year as manager that he has struck from the record. It was unfair of Steve Morgan (whose public criticism led to the board making this decision) to include the ill-fated season of joint managership with Roy Evans in Houllier's "five year plan" - as GH cannot be blamed for the confusion such a foolish arrangement caused, and he arrived without time to recommend new signings (although he did agree to Evans signing Vegard Heggem). Having said that, it did allow GH a year at the club, to thoroughly assess the players, before starting out on wholesale changes in the summer of 1999, and 2004 was the end of that five year plan, if his quotes were meant in such a manner. A new manager won't have the luxury of a year to make assessments; the more forgiving (or perhaps just 'fair') among us will not expect instant dividends from a new man (but still hope for the improvement you get through new, fresh ideas, and from players trying to impress a new manager), but the club needs to appoint someone reasonably soon; while he won't be able to assess the players in Houllier's squad (and at the Academy) with the exception of those at Euro 2004, he will need the summer in charge to speak to people still at the club (hopefully Sammy Lee, who should be the assistant manager - the English link - to any foreign coach), and go away to work out who to bring in before the transfer deadline.

It was GH's natural caution that worried me most; champions tend to be brave - not foolishly gung-ho, but positive and brave. (Allegedly it's who fortune favours). An example in the Boro game recently was indicative of the problem of recent years. After the game, GH said we weren't going to chase a third goal (even though goal difference could still have been an issue) for fear of throwing the 2-0 lead away. He said such an approach had cost us dear in the past. It may have done (Man City on the penultimate game of 2002/03 springs to mind), but I think that in the past we let ourselves down more by being too negative when 1-0 up (especially at home) than we have thrown away leads with irresponsible play.

The main worry was the way we finished the Boro game. The best teams kill the opposition off, either by scoring more goals, or by keeping the ball. They do not hit and hoof and surrender possession lightly; after 60 minutes of some beautiful passages of pass-and-move, we suddenly reverted to Wimbledon circa 1986. All composure eeked from our play, and we gifted Boro cheap possesion constantly. Thankfully, we were up against a team with nothing to play for, so they weren't too bothered about taking us up on our generous offer of the ball every ten seconds. Even allowing for nerves and pressure, and while they may end games poorly, you could never imagine a team under Wenger or Ferguson ending a game by not at least trying to pass the ball along the ground.

From my own playing days as a semi-pro, one game sticks out in my mind - it taught me a  valuable lesson in football, and I often thought of it when watching Houllier's Liverpool (especially in the last two years), as it sums up our weaknesses. I was part of a young, fit side, who couldn't believe their luck when watching the opposition warming up before one cup game. We thought we were facing Dad's Army (not sure if overseas readers will get that reference, mind!). They were balding, or with grey hair; a couple had pot-bellies. One guy had a knee-brace so sturdy and mechanical that you imagined his lower leg would simply fall off if it were removed. Turns out they were a collection of aging top semi-pros and decent lower league pros. They ripped us to shreds; it was like playing eleven Jan Molbys, standing about in the sunshine making the ball do the work. Once a couple of goals up (admittedly one of their strikers and a couple of midfielders were younger, and nippy), they simply kept the ball for nearly all of the remainder of the game.

It taught me that experienced players offer something crucial to any side, and that keeping the ball - especially when in the lead - can exhaust even a young, fit opposition, while simultaneously stopping any chance of a comeback. Lately, Liverpool had neither had experience nor the ability to keep the ball (and I don't mean reverting to the pointless over-long possession, going nowhere, that became a fault under Roy Evans).

The lack of natural, intuitive interplay in our passing worried me. The majority of our side had been assembled during Houllier's first two seasons, and yet there appeared to be no real understanding blossoming between the players. Exceptions like at Birmingham in the final away game merely added to the frustration; it could be done, so why not often enough?

I retained a serious concern that GH could not handle older players who are capable of thinking for themselves. As assistant to Michel Platini he was reportedly ridiculed by his boss, and also Jean Tigana - two of the best players of their generation (Platini one of the best ever). A semi-professional ex-teacher was labelled the "Professor"; all his ideas were theoretical, like a general in an army who has never fought as a soldier. Perhaps it made GH acutely aware of his failings as a coach? - how could he tell the players that he knew how it felt to play in big games? He didn't.

So the side stayed young; players approached their mid-to-late-20s and were sold. The average age of our side should have been close to 27/28 at this point in GH's plan, where players younger and older even out to a nice level of all-round experience. In 2000 our average age was very low, at 24, but the future suggested, naturally, that by 2004 it should be around 28, the age nearly all top teams average-out at. It isn't. It is still far too low - probably still only 24. Gerard's obsession with laying foundations, building for the future, will serve us well in the future, but he merely kept postponing success in the present.

It is telling that although not outright successes individually during the Treble season, players like Ziege, Litmanen and Barmby were still canny pros in the prime of their careers, and they all played their parts. Fowler's experience in the big games told, with some crucial goals in his 17, at a time of the season Heskey's goals dried up (Fowler scoring in two separate semi finals, two separate finals, and the 'final' that was Charlton). Babbel was fresh from a top career at Bayern Munich and the Champions League final. Berger came back at the end of the season and set up goals for Mickey in several games. McAllister had the kind of experience that was priceless, and still had the legs to get about the field; he was like having a manager out on the pitch. All of these players were perhaps rightly replaced, for one reason or another; but they were nearly all replaced with the wrong players, or players too young to cope with what was expected of them. Gary Mac was perhaps GH's best bit of business, getting him for free, but he never replaced him.

The same season Arsene Wenger spent £10.5m on Thierry Henry GH paid that exact same amount on Emile Heskey. We got a good - occasionally great - but seriously flawed player for the same price Arsenal purchased the greatest attacking individual talent the Premiership has ever seen: a veritable one-man forward line; creator, winger and goalscorer surpreme, and a hugely driven man. (Danny Mills tried to wind him up, and Henry was like a man possessed - in a good way - and made it his personal mission to make Mills look like the yard-dog he is; and he did. And some...). Wenger signed Henry before Houllier signed Heskey, but I use it merely as an example of why Arsenal are so successful, and we have been so average. Wenger got it right, and Houllier didn't. Of course, GH signed Sami Hyypia for £2.6m and Wenger bought some real duffers, but on average, Wenger got it right more often.

We went for Anelka in 2002, who was promptly traded for a younger, less-experienced player from Senegal; GH perhaps fearing the Frenchman's temperament - and yet in the two years since that decision, Diouf is the one who has been booked countless times, has spat at opposing fans, come back late without explanation from the ANC, and broken club rules on late night drinking (while going a year without scoring). Anelka has been a bit moody, but has mostly scored lots of goals and linked play in that very clever way of his. Again, maybe Anelka would have been the wrong signing - who knows how it would have panned out? What is beyond question is that Diouf has been a major disappointment.

Owen, Gerrard, Heskey and Carragher all had outstanding seasons in 2000/01. Within the framework of experienced players from 25-35, the youngsters were not carrying huge weights on their shoulders. Suddenly there were even more young players surrounding them, and the older ones had mostly moved on. The pressure was all on those young shoulders.

Our only regular outfield elder statesmen are Sami and Didi - both great players, but neither seems capable of saying boo to the proverbial goose. Neither is a leader; both go about their business quietly and effectively. Sami was not a good captain, as he was simply too introverted. As soon as he was relieved of the burden, he rediscoverd his form; Gerrard, meanwhile, grew immensely under the pressure of the armband. A great decision by GH, but one which couldn't alone overturn some bad ones.

It's all very well wanting to start with young players you can indoctrinate with a professional approach, and who will look up to you and respect you in the way older players simply will not. But sometimes you need players capable of thinking for themselves once they cross that white line. GH seemed to like 'yes-men'. His teams were built around discipline, and while that makes sense, there wasn't always that little bit extra you need as well. You don't want egos out of control (self-obsessed prats like Paul Ince, or "Loadsamoney" fools like Kieran Dyer), but you do need 'big personalities'. Once they crossed the line, Souness, Dalglish, McDermott or Hansen didn't need to look to the bench for instructions. They were all of an age and a temperament where they knew what needed to be done, and one or two raw youngsters like Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan flourished in their company. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the current side to our teams of the past, but unfortunately they remain the yardstick, and if it is impossible for us to ever match them, we have to look like at least coming close from time to time.

Look at Arsenal's current team, and you see a similar amount of character and experience to our early 1980s side running through their squad. Wenger assembled all of that squad, bar Bergkamp. And he did so with a lower average net-spend per year than GH assembled ours. Whoever wins the league each season becomes the other yardstick we are judged against. Alas, this year we weren't even close.

It remained the case that GH's two best players were Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard. He helped both become great players, and better men. Most crucially, he helped eradicate medical flaws in each, through his osteopath in France and specialist in Germany. But would not any other decent European coach have taken similar steps? It is fair to GH to say that - at the very least - you cannot imagine either player - one a European Footballer of the Year, the other arguably the best all-round midfielder on the planet - being better had they played under any other manager in the game. Conversely, they were phenomenal natural talents, and GH was fortunate to have two such players on the books when he took over. (Yes, Gerrard was only in the Academy, but he was earmarked for greatness years earlier; it's not like he discovered him on some local park kicking about with his mates - he was there waiting to be promoted to the first team set-up). So GH deserves a lot of kudos for their standing in the game, but having inherited them, he then failed to buy enough players fit to play alongside them, or get the best out of those he did.

As with Evans, who built a great attacking unit in the mid-90s (before it all went sour), GH's best times came two-three years into his sole tenure. Alex Ferguson appears to remain merely the exception to one rule: all other managers who have won the league, in recent memory, did so before five years in charge. Momentum is crucial in football, and I feel we simply lost ours, and as when it happens in a single football match, it can be hard to get back without drastic intervention. Things slide.

In his initial years, Alex Ferguson never took Manchester United to the heady heights GH took us to 2001 (what a season!), so he never had to experience a serious downturn in fortunes during his first five or six years, just a constant mediocrity that suddenly evolved into increased success in the early 1990s, as their league position gradually improved and they added cups in successive years. Had Ferguson done brilliantly in his first couple of years (say he had achieved his cup successes then, and not in 1990 and 1991), and then it tailed off dramatically, he would almost certainly have lost his job. Similarly, had a large regression taken place in Ferguson's early years after some serious immediate progress, and he somehow did keep his job, Manchester United may never have dominated football in the 1990s. The slow but steady progress from 1990 onwards led to their league success in 1993. We were on a similar course until the end of 2001/02, and then huge cracks appeared. Once things turned for the worse, and stayed that way for two whole seasons, it was always going to be that bit harder to claw back. Momentum was lost.

Are we in a better state now than when GH took over? Undoubtedly. The facilities are much improved, and whereas Evans left a nucleus of top-class but unprofessional players, GH has assembled a slightly larger nucleus of top-class - including two world-class (three, with Sami) - players, all of whom are dedicated and professional, and some hugely promising young players.

So, it is with a heavy heart that I bid GH farewell, and thank him for the great times, while hoping that his good work leaves an enduring legacy, and leads to more great times in the future. Now he has gone, and we no need to worry over our future under him, he can be remembered with only great fondness by Liverpool fans.

The Replacement Candidates

Jose Mourinho and Rafael Benitez

Both of these men are clearly very good - possibly great - managers, but I have to say I don't know an awful lot about either, beyond what's been written of late (and that includes Mourinho coaching his side with very defensive attitudes). Both have only become successful in the last two or three years.

Benitez, at 44, is a good age - not too young, not too old; experienced, but with fresh ideas. His UEFA Cup win was good, but two Spanish titles in the last three seasons speak volumes. Does he speak English? Reports differ.

What worries me is that they would be coming from a "Latin" style of football, and it could be a complete culture shock; they won't have teams like the old Wimbledon to deal with, but the pace of the game is frenetic over here. I will never forget being present to see Valencia walk all over us at Anfield, and I believe Michael Owen rates them the best club side he has faced. As well as passing the ball with pace and elan, they also ran and closed down like the most feverish English side. So maybe his abilities will translate.

It might be better to find a coach from a "colder" country, such as France (although no names spring to mind), Holland (Gus Hiddink) or Germany (Ottmar Hitzfeld, winner of the European Cup with two different German sides). One who speaks English is a must; we don't want to repeat the fiasco of Claudio Ranieri's first year here.

Claudio Ranieri

Ranieri had never finished higher than fourth before in all his years in management. Before he took over at Chelsea they were towards the top of the table and had won several cups - much like Liverpool a couple of seasons back. But they have won nothing since. Despite £120m, I didn't see the kind of improvement that money might have brought about; he did well in some respects to gell a team so quickly, and maybe having a shed-load of players shipped in en mass merely made his task all the more confusing, but he never seemed sure of his best side; I'm sure GH could have done equally well had he spent £120m last summer, when we were neck-and-neck with Chelsea. Their playing style has also been criticised as defensive and boring, in the Italian mould. Personally, the tinkering would drive me mad. Arsene Wenger has proved that you need a settled side to do well; resting the odd player is one thing, an entire side from week to week another. A likable, dignified man, but not one of my choices, although he does have the benefits of speaking (a highly amusing form of) English, and experience of this country and the peculiar style of our game.

Alan Curbishley

A good young manager - but no experience of playing for a big club, let alone managing one. And no experience of European or international football. Remains to be seen if he is capable of doing more than merely exceeding limited expectations at a well-run but fair-to-middling club.

I suspect he could do a very good job at Liverpool - but a great one? I have my doubts. It's the same with Steve McLaren and Gordon Strachan; I'm sure both could be effective, but now is the time to strive for a little bit more than that.

Martin O'Neill

O'Neill I like for a lot of reasons, dislike for others. There's something about his personality that irritates me, but perhaps it was because his Leicester teams tended to have just beaten us when I'd see him interviewed on TV. I'm not sure he's Anfield material (I don't see the board liking him) but I wouldn't be worried if he was appointed. His style of play is often criticised, but I have seen Celtic play some good passing football (but with the option of the long ball or crosses to a target man) and I don't believe he sticks rigidly to 3-5-2, as often cited (I'm sure he knows you can't win the league in England with such a system). With the exception of Henrik Larsson, he has never worked with players anywhere near as good as those at Liverpool, so I don't agree that he'd use his Leicester (or even Celtic) tactics if he was managing at Anfield. At Leicester, it was a case of needs must, with a ragtag mob he'd assembled for peanuts. He is an extremely clever motivator, and maybe some fresh motivational techniques will work wonders for those at Liverpool who need them. He takes no nonsense and doesn't suffer fools. He gets the best out of the talent at his disposal.

He worked wonders at Wycombe, seeing them promoted to the football league, and then not only got Leicester promoted, but they finished in the top ten four years running; which is at least comparable to a team like Liverpool finishing in the  automatic Champions League positions every season. Perhaps his most remarkable feat was winning two domestic cup trophies with Leicester; once can be a lucky run, but twice? At Celtic his side have broken all sorts of records. He also won a league title and two European Cups at Forest as a player, so he can demand respect on the training pitch.

What I like most is that he was successful as the 'underdog' at Leicester, and then in Scotland succeeded as the 'clear favourite'. Celtic tend to beat the teams they should be beating; that is not often enough the case at Liverpool (although poor Premiership sides in England are better than poor sides in Scotland). In front of 60,000 fans expecting and demanding victory, they nearly always deliver. (So maybe he can help our players cope with the pressure of expectant fans at Anfield?).

I have read that he has only achieved what is expected in Scotland; but I feel he has exceeded those expectations (if expectations are a 50-50 split of trophies with Rangers, then he has exceeded that, clearly, and since when, beyond the early 1980s, was getting to a European final a realistic target for a Scottish team?). The Scottish league is obviously not competitive, and that's an argument rightly used against him. But that just makes reaching a European final all the more remarkable (with a collection of cheap Premiership rejects), as do their showings in both the Champions League and this year's UEFA Cup, where they still managed to get further than Liverpool. He knows the English game, and has shown he knows Europe too.

When he took over at Celtic, they were behind Rangers and a bit of a shambles. If his brief was merely to finish above Rangers (do that, and you win the league), then he has done three times out of four (if my memory serves). If GH's was to finish above Man U, he's done it once in five years; if it was to finish above Arsenal, he didn't do that at all. I also seem to recall that Rangers have spent a lot more money than Celtic during that time; I may be wrong, but that's the impression I get. So O'Neill has a lot going for him. While I share some reservations, I don't know why people are so passionately against him. I imagine that with Larsson retiring he may think it's time for a new challenge, and that might be the task of finding a way to create a similar amount of chances for Michael Owen and Djibril Cisse.

Whoever we opt for, chances are he'll have money to spend, and if he can do that wisely, and get us playing with a little more cohesion, we can at least make dramatic strides, and then see where that leaves us.

© Paul Tomkins 2004


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