King Of The Counter-Attack Martin O'Neill Fits The Bill For Liverpool

Sam DaltonCorrespondent IJune 8, 2010

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - MARCH 13:  Aston Villa Manager Martin O'Neill looks on at the start of the Barclays Premier League match between Stoke City and Aston Villa at Britannia Stadium on March 13th, 2010 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

If Rafael Benitez is the cautious, cold-blooded master of statistics, then Martin O’Neill is surely the vibrant, energetic king of the counter-attack. Badly wounded after a season of despair both at home and abroad, Liverpool require relifting, and a new manager who will spark this floundering giant back into life. O’Neill could be the man with the plan.

With Jose Mourinho having accepted Real Madrid’s invitation this summer, the chance to lure the Special One to Anfield has already passed. Pity. Mourinho would’ve enjoyed the challenge of taking a club of such tradition back to the heights it once enjoyed, not to mention a return to a media who adore him. The charisma and sense of togetherness he would’ve brought to the dressing room is indisputable.

The eye must now be drawn to other targets, to those capable of breathing some hope back into the downbeat souls of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and co. The new man must have a proven record of success, of turning mediocre sides into great ones. They must have the knowhow of when to encourage players and when to turn the hairdryer on, a personable quality never possessed by Benitez during his time at Anfield. They must also know how to survive on a budget.

Two names jump out as the search for Benitez’s successor gets underway: Roy Hodgson and Martin O’Neill. Both men have transformed their respective clubs, with Hodgson having lifted struggling Fulham into the top half of the league and the Europa League final and O’Neill having made Aston Villa entertaining, stylish and, most significantly, successful again.

Though no trophies have been lifted, any neutral will tell you that O’Neill’s side were harshly treated by match officials on two monumental occasions last seasonboth at Wembley. In the Carling Cup final, Phil Dowd refused to send off Nemanja Vidic when he was clearly the last man in hauling down Gabriel Agbonlahor. Then in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea the same man was denied a clear spot-kick by Howard Webb when tripped by John Obi Mikel. Heart-breaking.

O’Neill’s success in domestic Cup competitions throughout his career will serve him well at Anfield, where there will be no Champions League football next season to take away any Premier League gloom. The FA Cup and league cup are taken extremely seriously by O’Neil, a refreshing quality in this day of resting star players.

Scoring a goal in the Cup is usually greeted by a smile and a gentle pump of the first these days by Premier League managers, but when Villa scored a decisive goal in a third-round tie away at Gillingham two seasons ago, O’Neil jumped up and down like a maniac and threw his arms up wildly. Try telling O’Neill there’s no romance left in the cup. Try telling O’Neill it doesn’t matter.

Under the Northern Irishman’s stewardship, Villa have played with an offensive formation that uses the wings as its main weapon. Dirk Kuyt is hardly Usain Bolt down Liverpool’s right, so this tactic will need revising somewhat if O’Neill is to make the move to Anfield, unless funds are provided for fresh blood out wide. Unlikely.

With the central talents of Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, O’Neill shouldn’t find moving inwards too difficult though. Liverpool have looked most dangerous when breaking from deep in recent years, with Torres looking to make spearing runs through the opposition’s defence, so O’Neil’s counter-attacking philosophy could triumph.

So, why not Hodgson? Despite guiding Fulham to an extraordinary Europa League final, Hodgson hardly presided over a goals fest last season, with the Cottagers amongst the lowest scorers in the Premier League. Hodgson’s football is more based on defensive security than attacking prowess, and there is no place for Conservatives in Liverpool.

Liverpool have always been exceptional defensively, give or take a Djimi Traore here or a Mauricio Pellegrino there, but “attack! attack! attack!” has always been the way. Even under Benitez, Anfield witnessed some scintillating wizardry and breathtaking counter-attacks.

O’Neill appears to be someone capable of re-energizing a group of players who never looked happy last season. He many not work miracles immediately, and under a tight budget it will be tough to steal back fourth place from Tottenham, but players are likely to respond positively to man who will bring the warmth and character that Benitez never could.