The feeling of euphoria that swept Anfield’s streets after Liverpool beat United was heightened by the sense that this was a watershed moment.
Here was a team that for large parts of the 2012-2013 season played a naive brand of cavalier football that was entertaining and easy on the eye but had a soft underbelly.
Vulnerable in transition and imbued with an inherent self-doubt that was consistently reinforced by a failure to beat top clubs, Liverpool were in danger of becoming little more than a football hipster’s wet dream. England’s Malaga. A collective embodiment of New Football’s ideal and a big red paragon of the passing game: ‘We may not win stuff, but my word, we’re pretty. Just look at Coutinho for God’s sake. Just look at him.’
That concept was squashed in the United game as our courtship with Rodgers’ new anti-Liverpool moved to the next level.
The team has developed 3 new qualities: resolve, aggression and cynicism. In Liverpool we’re happy to splice these three strands together and refer to it as nark. (More nark is very welcome and an entirely necessary characteristic of a successful side.)
As an articulate and, at times, alarmingly modern football manager, Brendan Rodgers loves a sound-byte. Merging “style with steel” was one of his aspirations for Liverpool this year.
It appears he’s starting to succeed.
Three 1-0 victories without, apparently, hitting high levels of performance is just what Liverpool fans needed to see to believe the team can progress to the next rung of the footballing ladder. Benitezesque pragmatism allied with Rodgers’ free flowing purist fundamentalism. It’s a potent recipe.
Not for the first time in recent years, United’s midfield struggled to cope with the energy and intensity of their Liverpool counterparts. Lucas and Henderson put in all-action performances and Gerrard moved beyond ‘imperious’ to become positively despotic. (He controlled not only the thrust of Liverpool’s attacks but also the tempo of the entire game.)
There was a resilience about Liverpool, a determination and a hunger that felt more than skin deep. Profound. Something has changed.
The streetwise way that Liverpool saw out the game showed that lessons are being learned and Rodgers isn’t content to settle for dominating possession. He’s more focussed on taking all 3 points and he now IS willing to compromise on his footballing vision to get them.
We have lift off.
Andre Wisdom’s breakneck charge to the corner flag in the dying moments of the game was wonderful to behold. (I wanted to reach for my Sky+ remote and rewind the real-world so I could watch it again.) As was the litany of small time-wasting contributions and constant barracking of the referee. We all want to see pretty football, but these villainous elements really do matter and in aggregation can make a big difference to a match’s outcome.
Pretty football + Nark = Win
Despite being understandably thrilled with the result, Liverpool fans will have spotted several areas that need improving if the team’s auspicious start is to lead to a successful full campaign.
Aspas made a lot of people angry. He was a weak link and looked out of his depth. He caught a lot of flak and for a short period I was as angry with the Spaniard as most of the fans sat around me. (Who were very angry.) I actually wrote the following angry tweet, but didn’t send it because I was angry and I thought it unfair upon reflection:
“Iago Aspas looks like an inspired signing. (For Liverpool U16′s.)”
I deleted the tweet because A) it was Aspas’s first real big game for Liverpool and B) I don’t want to contribute to increasing pressure on him. Though he did look like a boy amongst men for long periods, he has a fantastic work ethic and willingness to improve. Given time he’ll be a useful member of the squad.
In fact Rodgers’ primary concerns will be spread all across his forward line. The ball simply didn’t stick well enough when Liverpool played it forward and it consistently came back too quickly. That cranked up the pressure on a midfield and defence that were increasingly under siege as the game progressed.
Coutinho’s drop in form is mildly worrying (patchy form is to be expected from a 21 year old of course), Aspas looked lightweight and much more is needed from Daniel Sturridge in terms of his overall leading of the line.
Injuries and fitness levels mitigate this criticism, I know, but it’s clear that Sturridge doesn’t have the appetite to contest high balls or 50-50′s. He may think that goals will insulate him from criticism and excuse his occasionally laconic demeanour but he couldn’t be more wrong. If there’s one thing that will undermine his goalscoring efforts for Liverpool fans it’s a perceived lack of effort. We want to see goals AND graft.
Ian Rush is a legend at Anfield not only because he scored 229 goals in 469 games, but because he contested every ball and defended from the front. (Imagine the impact Sturridge would make if he showed Sterling’s recent level of determination and tenacity?)
So there’s certainly room for improvement in Liverpool’s forward line – thankfully Suarez’s return and Moses’ signing will provide welcome support and competition.
These concerns aside, Brendan Rodgers’ team is clearly gathering momentum and the signs of improvement are stark.
Rodgers had a shaky start and his first few months were tough. Understandable really, as the new managerial team bedded in and Liverpool faced an onerous early fixture schedule. Since January Liverpool’s performances have been, mostly, excellent. But strictly in terms of points Rodgers and his team have produced a remarkable turnaround in Liverpool’s fortunes since November 2012.
The average points total required to gain Champions League qualification over the last 10 years is 68.4 points. (Exactly 1.8 points per game.)
Liverpool have played 32 league games since 1st November 2012 and have secured 60 points, giving them a points per game average over the last 10 months of 1.88. (Contrast that with the previous 10 months, during which the Reds played 28 games and just amassed 28 points. The mathematicians amongst you will spot that’s a 1.00 point per game average. Relegation form.)
In other words, Liverpool have been delivering top 4 form over a period of 10 months. That’s not a flash in the pan, that’s a consistent pattern of behaviour and success over a prolonged period.
All the signs point to Liverpool mounting a serious challenge for a top four position this year. Now with added nark, surely nothing can stand in their way.
-Mike Kennedy (Find me on twitter)