Liverpool are the team everyone have become wary of coming into the final third of the Premier League season. They have enjoyed a magnificent week, following up a resounding 5-1 thrashing of the then league leaders, Arsenal, with a last gasp 3-2 victory at Craven Cottage. It was their charismatic captain, Steven Gerrard, who orchestrated a superb recovery over Fulham, ensuring Liverpool remain hopeful of being crowned champions come May. With Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, declaring his side as the ‘little horse’ in the race for glory, Liverpool are undoubtedly the ‘dark horse’ as we come into the decisive few furlongs remaining in this gripping contest.
Much has been said about Liverpool holding an advantage over their domestic rivals, due to their lack of European football. Arsene Wenger made the point Liverpool may be able to focus solely on the Premiership, however, he also highlighted the obvious that, if Liverpool were given the choice, they would prefer to be involved in the knockout stages of the Champions League. At the beginning of the season that was their primary objective, to restore this illustrious club back amongst the elite of Europe. Brendan Rodgers has masterminded a tremendous turnaround in performances, morale, and crucially results. The fascinating nature of this 2013/14 season has lead to this intriguing scenario in which, whilst Liverpool may do the unprecedented rise from 7th to Champions, at this moment it is still not guaranteed Liverpool will even achieve a place in Europe next season.
The Barclays Premier League trophy remains the one club prize that has eluded Liverpool’s talismanic midfield maestro, Steven Gerrard. The last time his Liverpool side were in contention to win the league, Rafa Benitez’s infamous rant was accompanied by an almighty surrender of glory, to arch rivals Manchester United. The camp seemed reserved following last weeks victory over Arsenal, but slightly more optimistic about their chances after the elation of capturing 3 vital points in injury time at Fulham. The equine theme continued when Gerrard was asked about his belief’s on who can edge their nose across the finishing line. “We’re in the mix,” stated Gerrard. “It’s still early days, there’s a lot of football to be played and we’re not going to get carried away. But we are in good form. We feel as if we’re dark horses.”
There has been a transition in the role that Gerrard has played this season. This new found identity in the side has seen Gerrard swap his dynamic role as a marauding midfielder, into a more defined orchestrator of play, utilising all the experience he has gathered through his illustrious career. Judging on performances since the switch, it can only be described as a masterstroke by those behind the scenes at Anfield. Numerous factors including age, stamina, and experience have lead Rodgers into believing the most effective spot for his influential leader is further deeper than we have been accustomed to. It is the sign of a true great, a player who can not only dominate the highest level in their preferred position, but when the time is necessary, they can survive the entirety at the top by simply slotting into a new role and still manage to have the same telling impact on the game.
A look at the table below shows how Gerrard effected the game on Wednesday night. He made a total of 14 long balls, 13 of which were accurate, giving him a total success rate of 93%. Crucially though, it was his long ball on the stroke of half time which sent Daniel Sturridge clear to equalise after Kolo Toure gifted Fulham the lead with his own goal.
Aside from the factors earlier mentioned, the reason for the switch in Gerrard’s role for Liverpool is fundamentally down to the fact his legs are ageing. He might not be able to do what he once could, a rampaging force into the opposition time after time. His ability to pass the ball as good as anyone is something that certainly hasn’t been lost. Like Scholes in the final stages of his career, Gerrard has identified this as his leading attribute to sustain success amongst the elite.
The table above shows Steven Gerrard’s passing zones over the last 3 fixtures. Against West Brom he achieved season high stats of 43 passes in his own half, 40 of which were successful. A not too dissimilar ratio is seen from the most recent game at Fulham on Wednesday, just one less pass was made in his own half, 42, however a slightly lower success rate of 88%. This implies how deep a role Gerrard has undertaken. Sometimes when defending, Gerrard has slotted in between the centre-halves, making a back five. This type of ability, and experience is priceless.
Under Brendan Rodgers’ guidance, Liverpool are full of youth, flair, pace, and brilliance in the final third of the pitch. They have once again captured the mind of their famous followers. They are four points off top with Chelsea and Man City yet to arrive at Anfield yet this season. The three sides above them all have to play each other once more too, resulting in dropped points for some. All this accompanied with the magnificence of Steven Gerrard, and not to mention the S.A.S strike force of Sturridge & Suarez, anything is possible heading into the home straight. Who would begrudge the local lad finally getting his hands on the ‘holy grail’ for his boyhood team, a team which he has never left even through recent dark times. There is no man it would mean more to than Steven Gerrard if Liverpool could end 24 years without the league crown. There is also no more fitting a year for Liverpool to achieve this feat than this, the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. They may not be shouting from the docks yet in Liverpool, but come May there may be a party that even the Beatles might have struggled to top.