LILLE, FRANCE - OCTOBER 18: Joe Cole of LOSC Lille Metropole in action during the UEFA Champions League, group B match between LOSC Lille Metropole and FC Internazionale Milano at Stade Lille-Metropole on October 18, 2011 in Lille, France. (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Players began to return to Liverpool for the start of preseason training this week, and along with a slew of familiar faces there are last season's loanees to become re-acquainted with. Key amongst them is Joe Cole, whose arrival was preceded by statements from the management letting everyone know he'd get a fair chance to impress in training and preseason. And now Cole himself has come out with a standard bit of boilerplate suggesting that he has something to prove—that this time around things can be different. It's a foolish hope at best.
There's nothing wrong with a manager wanting to get a first hand look at the talent he has available, but it would be unwise for fans to allow absence and a moderately successful season as a squad player in one of Europe's second tier leagues to convince them this isn't the same Cole they saw two seasons ago. In fact, about the only real difference between the Cole who joined Liverpool in 2010 as Christian Purslow's marquee signing and the Cole who began pre-season training with the club this week is that he's two years older. That means it's now two years on from when it became clear his legs had gone; from when it became clear why he'd found minutes harder and harder to come by at Chelsea; from when everybody figured out why his former club had allowed him to run down his contract and leave on a free.
Two years ago, he wasn't seen by Chelsea as a player who could help them win trophies. Even worse, with little effort made to find a new home for him in the final year of his contract, it was clear that he wasn't even considered a saleable asset. Now he's two years older, and while an entirely financial argument might be made for getting the best out of him given Liverpool's foolish investment two summers ago, from a footballing perspective there is little justification for him to be anywhere near the matchday squad next season. If he is, it means he's either taking minutes away from players with a future at the club or essentially replacing a more effective departed veteran like Dirk Kuyt or the still expected to depart Maxi Rodriguez. His bloated contract aside, in footballing terms it's a stark case of either hindering the future or downgrading the playing staff.
Neither option benefits the club when it comes to actually winning football games, and if the only goal of Fenway Sports Group is to see a return to the financially lucrative top four and Champions League action—and that need was the main justification for Kenny Dalglish's dismissal—then the longer term financial concerns would seem in line with the short-term footballing concerns that suggest Cole's place isn't at Anfield. The player can talk all he wants of wanting to prove himself, trotting out the tired cliches that under-performing players on large contracts always fall back on, but if the club is to have any hope of improving its league position it needs to improve the playing staff. Foolish hopes that fly in the face of all evidence aside, there's no reason to think Cole taking up a spot in either the starting eleven or on the bench does anything but weaken it.
He did score four league goal for Lille last season, and were those four goals registered for Liverpool instead he would have been tied with Andy Carroll and Maxi Rodriguez for fourth, one goal behind Steven Gerrard. For the club he was playing for, however, he was seventh in scoring. As always, context matters, and it's worth noting that with 72 goals to Liverpool's 47, Lille was a much higher scoring side than Liverpool. While Cole deserves credit for the part he played, it can't be overlooked that he also benefitted from it—and from playing in a far less physically demanding league. Anybody tuning in to watch one of Lille's games last season on their way to finishing third in Ligue 1 will have seen a much less frantic style of play than in the Premier League, and at the start of the season Cole himself talked about adjusting to the slower pace of UEFA's sixth ranked league:
"The tempo of the game doesn't change in the final third, the urgent part of the pitch where defenders still shut you down. But, sometimes, teams drop off and we get to be a bit more patient in our buildup. You have to be cleverer with your movement. I've been making runs I don't need to make, charging forward to close down a full-back as I would in the Premier League. That's what I've been programmed to do. Back home, you'd have team-mates screaming at you to 'push up on him'. But when I do it over here I look back over my shoulder and my team-mates are, like: 'What are you doing? Conserve your energy.'"
Cole may have appeared better able to keep up with the game in France last season, but that had less to do with an increase to his fitness and stamina levels and more to do with his stepping down to a league where the pace matched what he's capable in the twilight of his career. And even then, he was far from a lock to start every week, making many of his appearances off the bench and only going the full ninety minutes on six occasions. In all competitions, Cole made 28 starts and 14 further substitute appearances. Playing 42 times out of a possible 49 in all competitions for Lille is certainly a healthy return, but it does remain a significant step behind the likes of Eden Hazard, the club's best player until he was sold to Chelsea last month, who saw action 47 times, went the full ninety on 37 occasions, and only appeared as a substitute in three of them.
In the league, those numbers meant that Joe Cole played 1769 minutes. Hazard, by comparison, played 3207. Among midfield players at Lille, Cole was fifth in minutes played. Amongst all outfield players, he was eleventh. And so, as with his goal record, the numbers support the idea that he had a decent season. He didn't, however, have an outstanding one, which makes it almost impossible to not then return to the fact that he had this decent season as a key squad player for the third place side in Europe's sixth place league. He didn't have a great season; he was more supersub than starting eleven; his goal return wasn't exceptional compared to his teammates'; and the minutes he did play are unlikely to mean he has significantly more stamina that the last time he was at Liverpool.
So by all means Brendan Rodgers should take a look at Cole now that he's back. And by all means Cole himself should talk about applying himself and having something to prove—after all, there's little else he could be reasonably expected to say. For fans, though, expecting him to be the answer—to be any kind of answer, even off the bench—if the club hopes to make it back into the top four would be beyond foolish, for all that absence has a way of making the heart forget just how little a football player may have previously done.