It wasn’t a particularly sharp start to Liverpool’s but the team that were scraping around in Europe and domestically have remarkably turned things around and are now pushing for Top 4 as well as being one of the hottest favorites for raising the FA Cup, all just before the start of Europa League knockout stages. There is a lot different about the Reds from Anfield now compared to the early stages of the season when teams like Ludogorets, Aston Villa and QPR were causing issues and the credit goes to one man, Brendan Rodgers.
Last season Liverpool prided themselves on possessing the most deadly attacking duo in the Premier League and in the world, which almost pulled them to the much awaited Premier League glory. Such was the power of Suarez and Sturridge up front that they overshadowed Liverpool’s troubles at the back, because they outscored almost every opponent. It was a memorable season for the Reds, one that almost had a fairy tale ending, instead all that was left was disappointment, especially for Steven Gerrard, one of the best midfielders in history of football.
Suarez was sold in the summer for £72 million to Barcelona and Liverpool used it to fund a raid on Southampton for Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren as well as securing Lazar Markovic, Alberto Moreno, Emre Can and Mario Balotelli with a few other players coming on loan. In a pre-season friendly, the Reds beat Borussia Dortmund 3-0 and all seemed to be going well in preparations for a post-Suarez era. However 3 games into the season, before the month of August was over, Daniel Sturridge was injured and Liverpool found themselves without their second talismanic striker from last season. They were left with the controversial Mario Balotelli, Rickie Lambert and Fabio Borini to play as lone centre forwards.
In the absence of Suarez and Sturridge, and more importantly in the absence of their goals, the weakness in Liverpool’s team became more and more obvious. Poor defending was something Rodgers forgot to address on the training ground and the new signing Dejan Lovren proved to offer little improvement in that aspect. Up front the Reds lacked creativeness and sharpness in the final third as much as they missed a lethal finisher. Neither of their new signings really lived up to the expectations and the team were often reliant on Raheem Sterling to make something out of nothing. Another trait that disappeared from last years title contenders was their high line of pressure, lead by Sturridge and Suarez. Running down defenders was simply too much to ask from Mario Balotelli, who failed to score in his first 9 games in the Premier League before being finally dropped to the bench for his lack of any contribution to the team effort.
It was December 14th when Liverpool visited Old Trafford, the ground of their rivals, the ground where they memorably won 0-3 last season against a poor Manchester United. This time around, the Red Devils’ performance was not that much better, Liverpool were the better team but after some heroics from De Gea, an offside goal and some effective finishing from United, the home side took the game 3-0. At the end of the weekend, Liverpool sat 11th in the league behind Merseyside rivals Everton in 10th. It was also the game that marked the turnaround in Liverpool’s season.
Brendan Rodgers, who was under fire from critics at this time, knew that if he was to salvage Liverpool’s season, he had to act fast as their current style was not working. He introduced a revolutionary 3-4-3 formation with two holding midfielders and two wingers on each side of the pitch. This system was in use against Manchester United already, but two things changed after that game. Firstly, Glen Johnson was never used as the right centre back in the back three since, in fact he did not make an appearance. The second change to the team was the introduction of Lucas Leiva alongside Steven Gerrard as the two holding midfielders for the team, with Lucas covering for Gerrard who is allowed to go forward and use three of his greatest attributes, his intelligence, his vision and his passing.
Since then, the Reds have played 15 games in all competitions, taking three points from 9 of those games and losing only one, to Chelsea in the 2nd leg of the League Cup semi-final. They have climbed the league from 11th place and 10 points behind 3rd place to 7th place, closing the gap on Top 4 to 3 points (with Manchester United having a game in hand against Burnley). Suddenly, a team that has lacked a face and has been struggling for fluidity and sharpness in their game gave us one of the best games all season in a showdown against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was a game that could have gone either way, in the end it went in favour of Chelsea but it was a glimpse of what the Reds can do and a warning sign to their upcoming opponents. After defeating Tottenham on Tuesday, one of their biggest rivals for a Top 4 finish, Arsenal, Manchester United and Southampton must be aware of the threat Liverpoolare at the moment, and the credit to that goes to Rodgers’ willingness to change his team when things weren’t going their way.
The Liverpool manager’s ability to manage his squad is shown through the way he dealt with the problem of Simon Mignolet. The Liverpool goalkeeper hasn’t been in particularly sparkling form since a few games into last season. He has made costly errors and was much criticised by everyone, with Liverpool said to be looking to replace him. Rodgers actually dropped Mignolet from the team in favour of Brad Jones in December for games against Manchester United and Arsenal, which does say something about the Liverpool keeper’s form. However the switch wasn’t long lasting as Jones injured himself in his third start against Burnley and Mignolet has held his position ever since, producing some fine performances and outstanding saves, most recently denying Erik Lamela a top corner goal on Tuesday.
Liverpool’s overall defensive performances have gone up as well ever since Rodgers opted for starting three centre backs in his back three with Lucas sitting in front. They are much more solid and that gives the team some breathing space, because there is no pressure on the offensive players to score three goals every game to make up for the two conceded. In their nine Premier League games since losing to Manchester United, Liverpool have conceded 7 goals and Mignolet has kept 5 clean sheets. For comparison, until that game at Old Trafford, the Reds have kept 4 clean sheets and conceded 22 goals in 16.
Another master move by Rodgers was the way he chose to deploy the young German Emre Can as left centre back alongside Skrtel and Sakho. Eventhough the German is a natural holding midfielder, he has looked more than comfortable in his new position, making important tackles and blocks like a born centre back.
In their first 16 games this season, Liverpool averaged 1.3 points per game, 21 in total. In their last 9, they managed the same amount of points with an average of 2.3 per game. It is not by chance that they are the best team in the league over the last 6 matches. The way they have chased down Tottenham, Manchester United, Arsenal and Southampton should be alarming for all of those teams as out of nowhere, another Top 4 contender has emerged. And this team looks a lot more capable of achieving it than the team that was playing in Liverpool shirts in September, October and November. Especially with Daniel Sturridge coming back into the mix after his much awaited recovery from injury.