Guest columnist Frank Connolly gives his views on the circumstances which have allowed for Liverpool’s rebirth as a genuine title contender…
Approximately one year ago to this day, Liverpool were languishing in 8th position on the Barclays English Premier League ladder. 27 games into the 2012/13 EPL season, Liverpool were behind cross-town rivals Everton by 3 points and a staggering 29 points behind the old enemy Manchester United. This weekend, as they prepare for their 27th match of this season, Liverpool find themselves just 4 points behind league leaders Chelsea with 11 games remaining.
The appointment of Brendan Rodgers in June of 2012 was greeted with much scepticism amongst supporters. That season ‘King Kenny’ (Dalglish) had guided Liverpool to victory in the League Cup, and had narrowly failed to defeat a strong Chelsea side in that year’s FA Cup final. However, Liverpool’s ultimate goal is to be competing against clubs of similar grandeur which can only be achieved by finishing in the top 4 of the EPL, in order to qualify for the UEFA Champions League.
Rodgers’ footballing philosophy is based on passing the ball out from the back, and starving the opposition of possession. The great Barcelona team of the last decade has proven this philosophy to be extremely effective in terms of results as well as entertainment value. While enduring a strong finish to an otherwise mixed 2012/13 season, Rodgers had set Liverpool a bench mark for which to improve on in the coming season.
Despite the potential impact for Jamie Carragher’s retirement to have on the performance of the team, the club’s activity in the transfer market proved fruitful. The signing of Kolo Toure brought back a substantial amount of experience which Liverpool had lost through Carragher’s retirement. Furthermore, the signing of Sakho, Illori and Cissohko strengthened Liverpool’s otherwise ‘sparse’ defence and brought competition to the previously frustrating left-back position which in seasons past has been Liverpool’s Achilles heel. The previous January transfer window had led Rodgers to sign the young Brazilian, Philippe Coutinho. Coutinho has added class and creativity to Liverpool’s midfield which they have struggled to replace since Xabi Alonso’s departure in August, 2009.
While buying foreign players, Rodger’s has also maintained a local connection to the club by creating an English backbone to the team through the likes of Gerrard, Sturridge, Sterling, Johnson, Henderson and Flanagan. By maintaining an English core, Rodgers has developed a tenacity to the team which is reminiscent of the title-winning teams of both Chelsea and Manchester United which had strong English cores. Chelsea with the likes of Terry, Lampard and Cole, and United with the likes of Ferdinand, Scholes and Neville.
Liverpool’s rise up the ladder has undoubtedly been contributed to by player development. Luis Suarez has taken his game to another level and sits amongst the top 5 best footballers in the world. Fringe players, such as Henderson, Sterling and Flanagan, have also improved resulting in greater competition for positions. Gerrard’s willingness to play a more defensive role has aided Liverpool’s revival when Lucas’s injury had seemingly left a substantial hole.
While player development has propelled Liverpool up the ladder, external factors have also aided Liverpool’s rise to title contention. In seasons past, at this stage of the season the race for the title would be between 2 or 3 teams. However, the playing field has since become more even. There is no doubt that United are in transition after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. Likewise, Manchester City experienced a coaching change which provided them with a slow start to the season. Mourinho’s return to Chelsea improved the team defensively but it took a while for the attack to become consistent. This season both Everton and Tottenham have been snapping at the heels of the top 4 teams. Even United, whilst struggling, have been challenging the leaders when pitted against them.
While not writing off Liverpool and Arsenal completely, the race for 1st place should be between the class and squad depth of Pellegrini’s City, and Chelsea aided by Mourinho’s experience. Liverpool must improve defensively in order to win the league. Offensively, Liverpool have been excellent with only City scoring more goals. However, constantly leaking goals applies pressure on Suarez and Sturridge to convert more chances each match. By creating more chances Liverpool can be susceptible to being caught out of formation and, therefore, at greater risk of conceding goals.
Lastly, Liverpool require more depth offensively. In the advent of a Suarez injury, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto are first in line. Both players have struggled to adapt to the physical and fast nature of the EPL. Ideally, a player proven to have performed in the Premier League should be purchased. The decision to sell Andy Carroll was warranted as Rodgers’ style did not support Carroll’s play. A player of Carroll’s calibre should be playing week in week out at a high level. Consequently, Liverpool must obtain more depth in this area.
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