Talk of a league title returning to Anfield on the 11th of May, after a 24-year wait, would not have been taken seriously even amongst the most optimistic reds of the Merseyside as the season kicked off on the 17th of August at home to Stoke. However with only four games to go, Brendan Roger’s Liverpool have found themselves two points clear at the top of the table and, after Manchester City’s slip up during the week, must be considered favourites to go all the way. With an inspirational Steven Gerrard demonstrating his prowess in his new Quarter Back position, a manager with blind belief in his players’ potential and above all a strike partnership terrorising the country’s defences with frightening ease, not many would claim otherwise.
Is this the start of a new era at Anfield resembling that of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley in the 70s and 80s? Are Manchester United in for a long winter in the face of their bitter rivals taking over as England’s Top Dog? These prospects may excite the members of the famous Kop but are in direct confrontation with another school of thought, one questioning the Merseyside club’s realistic chances of reproducing such a credible title challenge in the near future. Is this not just a one-off? A quick reminder of Anfield’s legendary atmosphere? A last cry of honour from their formidable and yet aging Captain before the inevitable hanging up of the boots? Both sides of the story shall be discussed.
Brendan Rodgers has spent the better part of the season trying to find his starting back four. It seems only two players have succeeded in demonstrating their ability to fend off any potential threat to Minglolet’s closely guarded net, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson in central defence and at right back respectively. With Jose Enrique suffering of a knee injury and not featuring since the Red’s away win at Fulham in November, the Liverpool boss has struggled to find a suitable replacement. Indeed, Ally Cissokho, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan have all been used to fill in for the Spaniard with perhaps only the latter showing why he deserves to be in contention for the position as of late. The other position yet to be secured is the centre half position alongside the International Slovak, with on top of Agger and Sakho already mentioned Kolo Toure has also attempted to prove his worth at the heart of defence. Yet with only 4 games to go Rodger’s has still to decide, with Toure and Agger both starting 15 and Sakho starting 14 it seems this problem may go unsolved. That the amount of league goals conceded is only 1 less than in the entirety of last season’s, a season in which they finished 7th, despite there remaining 4 games, is mainly due to such an instability. On top of this the number of clean sheets preserved by the Anfield XI has declined from 16 to potentially 14 and this only if they to no longer concede a single goal, a prospect that seems rather unlikely in view of the recent trend. This situation can be likened to one of the factors that lead to collapse of Manchester City’s title hopes this season. With Manuel Pellegrini lacking a suitable partner for, arguably the world’s best defender, Vincent Kompany.
In front of the forever alternating back four is the English pair composed of promising Jordan Henderson and emblematic Steven Gerrard. The Merseyside boy through and through silenced the rumours that he was playing the season too many and has adapted to his new ‘Quarter back’ position remarkably well. Alongside the indefatigable Henderson, Gerrard has dictated the Liverpool play and contributed highly to his side’s recent success with 13 goals to his name, more than he had in the league since the 08-09 campaign in which they finished runners up with a club record of 86 points. However, 10 of these realisations came from the conversion of spot kicks awarded to the Merseyside club. Gerrard has also been subject to a highly increased amount of protection from his manager with the latter substituting the club captain before the final whistle on no less than 6 occasions in contrast to the 1 from the previous year. With a passing game still equal to those dubbed as the best in Europe his influence on the game is incontestable, but with his new role on the pitch requiring a more defensive approach Gerard’s advancing years do and will undoubtedly pose a problem in the near future. With a tackle success rate declining in and the illustration of the England International’s difficulty to cope when presented with a more agile and rapid opponent when he brought down Oxlade Chamberlain at Anfield in the 5-1 victory over Arsenal, it is fair to say he is not getting any younger. As much as it would not be fair to simply show Gerrard the door, Brendan Rodgers may wish to begin the search for a new ‘Quarter Back’ if he aims to upkeep his side’s level of performance in the league next year.
The outcome of this year’s title race is still very much to play for with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea only 2 points behind and still yet to visit Anfield, in what may be a title deciding fixture, and with Manchester City six points behind with a game in hand. Though it is Liverpool that posses the strongest hand in the run in and a significant psychological advantage of being on top. It remains important to remind oneself that this current campaign has represented for both Chelsea and Manchester City a season of adaptation with both clubs bringing in new managers with very different styles to their predecessors, despite this being Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge. As demonstrated by Liverpool themselves a season or two is sometimes required in order for a manager to have a noticeable impact upon their teams, something often forgotten by impatient chairmen to easy to hit the eject button when goings get tough, a situation Brendan Rodgers has the luxury of not experiencing. It would therefore seem that it is in fact during next season that the true force of both Chelsea and Manchester City shall be put to test. On top of this the two other title contenders have, unlike Liverpool, been competing on more than one stage with halfway through the season papers talking of a potential historic quadruple for Manchester City and Chelsea still in contention for a place in the final of the Champions League as we speak. Having played a significant amount of games less than both the blues from London and for Manchester it would only seem logical that the boys from Anfield find themselves where they are at such a crucial stage. The question remains whether they will be able to repeat such a feat once Mourinho and Pellegrini have had a certain amount of time to shape their squads as they wish and Rodgers has to deal with European football on top of domestic aspirations, where due to an increase in expectations there will also be an increased level of pressure.
A level of pressure under which the Liverpool players have not found themselves until this point, with Brendan Rodgers assuring us on more than one occasion that his aim is to take it “game by game”. He did not go as far as his Portuguese counterpart in playing down his side’s title chances all together but it is fair to say that there was perhaps less of an obligation for him to do so given the inferior amount of expectation, whether it be through the fans, the press or more importantly the board. This would however change if Steven Gerrard were to lift the Premier League Trophy with the Merseyside Reds finding themselves obliged to perform at a similar level as they have throughout this campaign, with on top of that the expectation to succeed in Europe as they have in the not so distant past. Such expectations would even rise when it comes to domestic cups, FA and League. With such a restraint squad and inexperienced squad, with the exception of few, Liverpool’s ability to cope will be highly scrutinised.
Some have even gone as far as to link Liverpool’s current success to the amount of penalties they have obtained claiming it’s down to ‘luck’ and a series of biased decisions. It would be false to claim that the penalties did not play an important part in the table leader’s success with 12 spot kicks being awarded to the latter, 5 more than anyone else. But is there not a need for a certain amount of luck in order to win the title? Looking back there have been situations where the champions have simply ‘run away’ with the league, however if one is to recall Manchester City’s title winning game one may also recognise that on occasion a little luck can swing the league in team’s favour rather dramatically. Liverpool have, as City did, made their own luck with their attacking style of play being at the source of their numerous penalties. It would therefore be unfair to declare that their league success has been based on ‘luck’ to such an extent. Should they decide to attack and run at defenders in such a manor there is no reason why it shouldn’t lead to the same result in the season to come, with perhaps the only changing factor being the increased awareness of opposing defenders.
The future is not all doom and gloom for Liverpool as they approach their first Premier League title and this majorly due to their world-class strike partnership that they possess in Luis Suarez and Daniel Strurridge, aka ‘SAS’. Indeed in would be unthinkable to discuss the club’s future potential without mentioning one of the deadliest attacking duos in Premier League football. The record lies with Andrew Cole and Peter Beardsley when in the 93-94 campaign they put away 55 goals for Newcastle United between them. As it stands, with 4 games to go, the Liverpool duo have managed a highly impressive 49 goals. They are therefore on par with Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton’s record with Blackburn Rovers’ league winning side of 1995. Given the understanding and complicity that the two forwards have developed and the fact that game by game their ability to provide for each other only seems to grow it would be foolish not to consider them as a considerable threat to any defence. This provided they succeed in fending off the interest of foreign and even fellow English clubs during the transfer season as they did successfully in the summer of 2013. This shouldn’t represent to hard a task with Luis Suarez signing a contract recently ensuring his is one of the highest earners of the League and with the return of Champions League football to Anfield it would seem there is not reason for him to reiterate a willingness to leave Sturridge’s company on the Merseyside.
Despite the prolific ‘SAS’ partnership providing 49 league goals the dependency on the latters contribution and notably that of Luis Suarez has, rather ironically, decreased since the previous campaign. A campaign during which the prospect of losing the Uruguayan for 10 games through suspension was met with a veritable outburst of anxiety, but who’s absence eventually lead to the rise of the Englishman as he scored 11. However this season it is not only Sturridge that has lead to a decrease in dependency on Suarez it is the contribution of the squad as a whole, with the total league goal tally rising from 71 to 93 and this once again with 4 games left to play. On top of Steven Gerrard’s mentioned contribution, Raheem Sterling has provided 7 goals, Philip Coutinho 5 and perhaps more surprisingly Martin Skrtel 7, thus explaining in part his manager’s confidence. This in direct contrast to last season’s 9 for Gerrard, 2 for Sterling, 3 for Coutinho and 2 for Skrtel. It would therefore seem that a major asset of the Liverpool squad and one that is likely to increase in the future is that of a wide range of players being able to score consistently and at crucial moments, such as Sterling, Skrtel and Coutinho did against City in the 3-2 victory at Anfield, days before the 25th Anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. One can only come to the conclusion that this is down to one man and one man only, Brendan Rodgers.
Brendan Rodgers has been decesive in turning Liverpool around and ‘returning them to where they should be’ according to the large majority of the Liverpool followers. It is his attacking philosophy which has allowed ‘SAS’ to develop to the extent to which it has and his use of attack as the best form of defence leading his entire squad to push forward fearlessly producing goals, and lots of them. His blind confidence and belief in his players transcends upon them allowing them to play free of pressure and achieving heights only Brendan Rodgers himself foresaw. This confidence is based on a remarkable self belief and how the game should be played and won, but also on a confidence that was placed in him by the board at Liverpool FC, where there was absolutely no question as to his future as head coach despite his failure to finish higher than 7th in the 12-13 campaign. He has been likened to Shankly and Paisley on more than one occasion, perhaps the most recently by Kevin Keegan, a Liverpool great and a highly experienced manager. One is therefore able to say that Liverpool’s future lies in safe hands as long as the board upkeeps its level of confidence in a man who’s confidence in others has lead to their success, illustrated through three members of the squad starring amongst the nominees for PFA player of the year.
It is another aspect of Rodgers’ ideology that allows one to believe in Liverpool’s future as a title challenging club, his confidence and willingness to allow the youth to develop as an integral part of the first team squad. Ex-Liverpool manager, now England head coach, Roy Hogdson recently praised the mangers of the English Premier League for their bravery in contributing to the development of young English players by including them in their first team plans. One manager that cannot go unmentioned when congratulating such a feat is Brendan Rodgers whom through the confidence that he has shown in Sterling, Henderson, Flanagan, and Sturridge has played a significant role in the affirmation of Liverpool and England being ready for the future. In 2013 Liverpool boasted the youngest team in the league with an average age of 23,38 demonstrating that despite their aging captain, they are a team with a future ahead of them.
The extent to which that future is fruitful depends on Liverpool and Liverpool alone as they sit very much in the driver’s seat for the home stretch starting with the first of 4 against Norwich. It is only once they have won the Premier League that may they turn their thoughts to how they intend to defend it, a process that may lead a busy summer for the puppet master that is Brendan Rodgers.