Throughout the season, I have spoken of March as a month that would make or break Liverpool’s season. Upon the completion of those five fixtures, the Reds sit top of the league with six games to go. There seems to be an infinite number of factors swinging in the favour of the Brendan Rodgers men which are heavily influencing this incredible season. The Reds face the task now of winning their last 6 games to take the league title back to Anfield at last.
During March we saw how multi-faceted Rodgers game plans can truly be. He had a strategy for everything, and the outcome of each game reflected this.
The 3-0 away win at Southampton showed his ability to counter a high pressing possession-based side with a similar philosophy to their own (capable of beating their own). While despite being the same scoreline, the win at Old Trafford was about overcoming ‘the occasion’. Capitalising on the enemies weakness, having a knowledge of strengths, and knowing how to execute them in that special environment. These were two completely different types of away win where context was a factor, yet both yielded goals and show the team can now keep a clean sheet.
The 4-4-2 diamond was utilised in both of these games, and a crucial part of the strategy was using Joe Allen in these away fixtures to exercise energy and control in the midfield. Jordan Henderson on the other side of Gerrard was also excellent tactically.
The Cardiff and Sunderland wins were about overcoming adversity during the game. Against sides battling relegation, going behind to Cardiff would previously have been a cue for Liverpool to collapse on the road, going behind a second time would have compounded the likelihood of this outcome. Instead Liverpool pulled through with sheer fire-power. Despite the number of goals, this was a particularly scrappy win (mainly in the first half).
The Sunderland game was a scrappy win in a different way, with the public generally expecting an Anfield drubbing, Liverpool couldn’t convert their chances despite dominating, and this consequently turned into a test of their character (especially when Sunderland pulled one back).
Cardiff was one of a couple of occasions where Liverpool completely dominated possession, and the off the ball movement was sublime. This allowed them to slice them open with patient play and create quality chances over lots of chances.
The psychological element of Liverpool’s success can be linked to the combination of both Brendan Rodgers quality as a coach, the genuine hunger of the group of players, and of course the helping hands of Steve Peters.
There have been some fantastic articles on the winning culture and mental toughness which has been instilled into the club by all involved:
This season the lack of European football has served as a tool for success for the Reds. Brendan Rodgers is a manager who thrives on attention to detail, and this extra preparation has been nothing short of a death sentence for the opposition. It is no surprise to me that since exiting the cup competitions and slowing down to one game per week, Liverpool have thrived, while their top four rivals at the business end of the Champions League have consequently suffered.
With pressure continuing to pile on the other clubs, this may continue to work in Liverpool’s favour as the final 6 games approach.
This period of the season has seen Liverpool reap the benefits of Rodgers’ versatility with systems of play. He has been able to deploy anything he likes with the players at his disposal, from 4-4-2 diamond, 4-3-3, to the emergency 3-5-2 on Sakho’s return.
We even saw what Brendan Rodgers described against Spurs as a ‘lop-sided’ 4-3-3, with Sterling as a genuine wide man, but the other two remaining high up the field together without the defensive responsibilities.
This allowed for so much fluidity against Tottenham, giving Suarez and Sturridge licence to roam. This concern for the back four actually allowed the midfield to flourish more than usual. Henderson’s play was rife with opportunity, Coutinho was finally able to find the target without passing to the keeper, and Rodgers got the desired effect – if the strikers don’t get you, the midfielders will.
Young players are flourishing under Brendan Rodgers, regardless of their situation or their history. The manager has shown that there is only one way to get into the side, and that is through a complete combination of hunger, hard work, and talent. Rodgers said himself in an interview last season (on Suso and Sterling) ‘if your only going to score 1 goal and get 1 assist you’re not going to play’.
He is providing these youngsters with every opportunity they require to succeed, and if they still don’t make the cut – so be it. The result has been Jordan Henderson becoming able to apply a tactical game to his physical attributes, Jon Flanagan being able to demonstrate his reliability and efficiency despite his lack of raw talent. Sterling in similar fashion to Henderson has become a tactical machine at 19 years of age, a full backs nightmare and the managers lethal weapon.
Daniel Sturridge was only waiting for a chance. His loan spell at Bolton was for him to pick up experience and get a chance to start and play through the middle – he proved his worth with 8 goals in 12 appearances at a young age, but for some reason Chelsea didn’t see it. Rodgers gave him the chance he had been begging for at every other club he had been at, and he has been proving his point.
Gerrard seems to be a man who thought his dreams of winning a title with his boyhood club had all but expired. At the age of 33, Liverpool had just finished 7th, and entering perhaps the first of his final 2-3 seasons, there would surely not be enough time for the Reds to claw back to the summit and do the unthinkable.
However just as he did in Istanbul after heading home for 3-1, at Wembley after crashing in from 30 yards, and the ball dropping for his winner against Olympiakos, once again the captain has smelt blood.
All of a sudden his dream of all dreams has come rushing back to life and he’s gagging for it. His performances have been a longer-term equivalent of grabbing a game by the scruff of the neck, and he has led the side ruthlessly through each efficient victory.
March has been a month to remember for the Reds, and it has given them the luxury of deciding their own fate. Fans are starting to turn from dreamers into believers as Rodgers resolve continues to strengthen, while the goal scoring machine that is his team, shows no sign of relenting in this area.
A thrilling April on the way!