“The Chihauhaus” of this season’s horse-themed title race according to Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool have exceeded everyone’s expectations this season and now find themselves at the end of their five year period in the doldrums, competing at the business end of the Premier League table once again.
But are they really title contenders? Rodgers himself doesn’t think so (at least not publicly) but the fans are allowing themselves to dream that the 24 year itch may soon be scratched and the long and painful wait for title number nineteen may soon be at an end. It’s a wait that has seen them usurped by their fiercest rivals as the most successful side in English football history.
Liverpool have been phenomenal at times this year, particularly in the past month. The way they tore Arsenal apart at Anfield was a joy to behold for the neutral and for fans of fast-paced attacking football. Even Arsenal fans present at Anfield that afternoon must have known they were witnessing something special. The speed at which Liverpool were able to break from their own defensive third to Arsenal’s penalty area was other-worldly at times. The 4-0 half-time scoreline didn’t flatter them at all. It should have been more.
This same attacking mentality saw them stick four past Everton and five past Swansea in recent weeks and they now have replaced Manchester City as the Premier League’s leading scorers this season. It’s quite possible that both sides could reach the 100-goal mark this season, a feat that’s only been done once before.
Liverpool’s rise this season is largely thanks to the form of their two prolific strikers who have really taken it in turns to bask in the limelight as Liverpool’s main man. Danny Sturridge started the season well scoring in practically every game. Luis Suarez then returned from suspension and duly began scoring in practically every game. Sturridge got injured and missed the entire festive program allowing Suarez to effectively etch his name of the PFA Player of the Year award. Since Sturridge returned, he’s scored in literally every game since whilst Suarez has become more of a creator.
Both strikers have more league goals than starts this season which is a very telling statistic. The strikeforce is undoubtedly of Premier League winning standard, what about the rest of the side?
Rodgers has until recently failed to find a settled starting XI this season. Aside from Henderson (who has found himself playing in several different roles depending on the formation), Gerrard and Mignolet, the starting line-up has been drastically rotated and the formation changed throughout the season. One player who found himself very much on the fringes until about December was Raheem Sterling. He regained a place in the line-up mostly due to the injury to Sturridge and his form has been so impressive since that Rodgers cannot justify leaving him out.
Coutinho and Henderson are two that seem to have found their positions shifted around quite a bit this season. Both have been asked to play wide roles at times despite being more naturally central players. Lately, with Rodgers incorporating Sterling into the attack, either Suarez or Sturridge has been asked to play a wide role, leaving Coutinho and Henderson to play in the middle with Gerrard behind as an anchor.
Steven Gerrard has been excellent this season and his career-long wait for that elusive Premier League winners medal may be nearing an end. He’s been playing in a new holding role recently allowing Henderson and Coutinho to get forward and support attacks. He’s contributed seven goals this season (mostly penalties) and nine assists from his new deeper role but his average of three tackles per game is where he’s helping to make a bigger difference.
It’s obvious Liverpool’s defence is their weak link. A weak link that has recently cost them four points against Aston Villa and West Brom, exactly the margin between them and the summit at the moment. Winning games 4-3 like they did against Swansea last weekend is fantastic entertainment for the fans but not really sustainable in terms of a title charge. What happens when Suarez and Sturridge have a relatively off day and don’t score more than one goal between them? Points are virtually guaranteed to be dropped.
Martin Skrtel, Kolo Toure, Glen Johnson, Mamadou Sakho and Simon Mignolet to name but a few have not pulled their weight this season. I don’t think Rodgers knows his best back four, I don’t think he can select a settled one and the result is that Liverpool have conceded 35 goals in the Premier League this season, more than West Ham, Hull and Southampton.
So can they win the league? I don’t think they will this year. They have some of the elements in place but never has the side with anything like the 10th best defence in the Premier League found themselves placed 1st at the end of the season. The strikeforce is the best in the country at the moment (Manchester City may take issue), the midfield is finally settled and has an excellent balance to it. The only thing letting them down is their leaky defence and error prone goalkeeper who cost them some valuable points in the big clashes with Chelsea and Manchester City over Christmas.
I think, ultimately, Brendan Rodgers will be the man to bring the league title back to Anfield. How long it takes remains up for discussion. Next year may prove a case of taking one step back before they take another forward. Liverpool’s success this year means they will have the added challenge of Champions League football next campaign, which may hinder their league form. There are steps to be taken and they must begin this summer if Rodgers’s fantastic work so far is to be continued.
What they need:
- A more reliable keeper. I don’t think Simon Mignolet is solid enough to be first choice for a title winning side.
- At least two new quality defenders. This may in turn lead to the sale of Martin Skrtel and a few others. Having a squad bloated with sub-standard players is generally not a good thing.
- A bigger squad. Liverpool have a good first eleven but do not have enough quality in depth to maintain the fight on more than one front next season.
- Another striker. Aside from the possibility of injury to Suarez and Sturridge whom they depend so heavily on, they will need some games off from time to time. Rodgers will need at least one more striker to be able to carry the can when they need a rest. When City need to rest Negredo or lately while Aguero has been injured, they can call upon Dzeko or Jovetic who are both dependable for goals.
Right now, Liverpool have the bones of what will be a very good side for years to come, in the attacking department at least. Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling and Sturridge are all still 24 or under. Suarez is now entering his peak years and they have him tied down to a long term contract. The only are of concern right now is the defence and Rodgers will have to address that in the summer. A man who sat under the learning tree of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea is bound to know a lot about defensive coordination. He will sort it out. Liverpool’s future is looking increasingly bright.