For a moment, it seemed like a case of déjà vu. After another barnstorming first half display to satisfy the raucous Anfield crowd, Liverpool once again headed into the break with a lead that didn’t quite reflect their dominance – the solitary goal that stood between themselves and visitors Bolton certainly didn’t tell the full tale of the first 45 minutes. For all of Liverpool’s possession in the first half, for all of their fantastic chances, for all of their excellent movement, the game remained wide open; Bolton weren’t finished yet. So despite being buoyed by the early brilliance of the reds, something unsavoury lingered in the back of the minds of the Anfield faithful – memories of just two weeks ago, where Sunderland, in the exact same position, turned the game on its head to steal a valuable point from within Liverpool’s grasp.
But in the space of just over a minute, Liverpool allayed all fears of a repeat occurrence this weekend; two quick-fire strikes from Martin Skrtel and Charlie Adam saw to Bolton and all but ended the match as a contest, propelling the reds forward to a forceful victory.
It was the way the script for the season opener against Sunderland should have unfolded – with Liverpool laying waste to an opponent that was already on the ropes. It was the sort of ruthless home performance that has been missing from the reds’ arsenal for far too long, where too often in the past few seasons Liverpool have needlessly surrendered points at Anfield in games where expectation has weighed the side down.
It was proof that, even in the short space of two weeks since the last home game, the team is improving. The reds have taken that setback in their stride and worked to overcome their failings; Dalglish and his side have analysed where they have previously stuttered, and sought to right their wrongs.
No – there was no déjà vu this week, no anticlimactic, frustrating and flat end to an otherwise rapturous opening. Liverpool came out from the break looking as hungry as ever, determined to put the game to bed instead of letting their opponent off the hook, and it is this small detail, this simple change in approach, that made all the difference.
Certainly, confidence may have played a part in this fortified mentality. Coming off the back of two successive victories away at Exeter and, more importantly, Arsenal, the team looked to be self-assured, filled with belief and positivity. With such confidence flowing through their veins, the team’s passing and movement was the most fluid it has been yet in the young season, and the chemistry shown between a group of players that are still getting to know one another was, in truth, startling. The team may have allowed a sense of creeping anxiety – and, perhaps, fatigue – to override their performance against Sunderland, but those demons have been firmly exorcised now. If nothing else, the team should know for certain that it has what it takes to put so-called ‘weaker’ teams to bed when the pressure is on.
One aspect of the performance that gets optimism levels soaring is just how balanced the team dynamic was throughout the game. A far cry from the years of relying upon Gerrard or Torres, for example, to win games, there now seems to be a true team ethic on the pitch, where goals can be scored through crafty, measured build-up play rather than individual brilliance – though that is still on display in abundance.
Indeed, the amount of players who can be game-changers on their day is exceptional – and something that the side hasn’t had in a long time. Players like Downing and Adam can be relied upon to create chances, whether from a vicious cross or sublime pass (from open play or from set-pieces, where Liverpool now look extremely dangerous for the first time in years – just ask Martin Skrtel), and with players such as Henderson now stepping up to make a difference, the future certainly looks bright. Add to this a pair of rampant full-backs in Enrique and Johnson (when he’s fit again), and the strength in depth that can see players like Meireles and Maxi come off the bench to make their own impact, and there truly are reasons to be positive. This is without even touching on the ever-reliable Kuyt and the majestic midfield force that is Lucas – who had an absolutely outstanding game this weekend – too.
The brilliance of Suarez cannot be denied, of course, but while he may play the role of the star up front, capable of both creating and finishing a plethora of chances, the difference that the supporting cast makes is immeasurable. And with Gerrard still to return – the man around whom the entire squad has been built for the past decade or so; a squad which is now flying even without him – the team looks, in many ways, stronger than ever.
All of this, though, is still forgetting Liverpool’s most expensive player ever, Andy Carroll. Dalglish’s task is to find a way to incorporate the striker’s brute force into a team that is otherwise built upon craft and technique – and there are question marks over the success of this tactic thus far. At times, Carroll looks a little out of his depth with the style of play surrounding him, and not for the first time this season the team’s momentum ground to a little bit of a halt with him leading the line against Bolton. What’s more, there is always the worrying tendency that his sheer presence will mean the team’s measured, inventive passing is sacrificed for a more tactless long-ball approach – great when it pays off, but not pretty to watch by any stretch of the imagination. On the plus side, Dalglish does seem to be weaning this out of Liverpool’s game – even in the dying stages of the game against Bolton, the reds did still seem eager to keep the ball on the floor and continue with their swift passing game.
Carroll should by no means be written off, however. He certainly provides the team with a different option if things aren’t going to plan, and adds an element of power to Liverpool’s arsenal. And despite the question marks lingering over his head, if he can adapt his play to slot seamlessly into Liverpool’s passing system, then his presence on the pitch will be massive.
So after this weekend’s emphatic performance against Bolton, optimism levels will be soaring – but despite all the reasons for positivity, we shouldn’t get carried away. The team has provided evidence that it is evolving and improving with each passing game, and by adding ruthless home performances to a repertoire that also includes being able to emerge victorious from clashes with teams in the league’s higher echelons, the only thing that is required now is consistency, and the building confidence that goes with it.
Fortunately, the squad is looking settled, and some excellent performances and a goal or two from new players like Adam and Henderson will do them the world of good bedding into the rhythm of the club. And whether the results fall our way or not, one thing is for certain – if the reds can continue to put on such excellent pass-and-move displays, then we’re in for an exciting season indeed.