To what extent can the recent past inform Liverpool’s future?

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As we “entertain” the third international break of the season already, how do we assess where Liverpool are?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Friday, June 1, 2012: Liverpool's new manager Brendan Rodgers during a press conference to announce him as the new manager of Liverpool Football Club at Anfield. (Pic by Chris Brunskill/Propaganda)

After being disenchanted with the manner of our defeat to league leaders Arsenal much more than I was disappointed with the actual result – losing at the Emirates to the current league leaders and the side who have amassed the most points this calendar year is not entirely unexpected or unforgivable to this incarnation of LFC. The lack of application however by far too many of our top tier playing staff left my fellow Liverpudlian’s decidedly crest-fallen and the signs of early season vertigo appeared to be beginning to show.

The ease with which they dispatched an ailing Fulham side however has restored not only self-belief in the ranks of the club staff but also a much needed confidence boost that fans will want going into this season’s first Merseyside derby in buoyant mood.

Easily-forgotten Context

During Brendan Rodgers first six months in charge of Liverpool Football Club he had a number of key hurdles to navigate:

  • Joining a football club where expectations will (rightly or wrongly) will always exceed the resources of the football club especially given that less than 2 years earlier the club had been just hours away from administration
  • Succeeding a club legend in the manager’s seat (with many fans unhappy with the dismissal given the trophy in the cabinet and narrow margin by which the FA Cup Final was lost- despite the poorest league points tally since the 1950s)
  • Doing so with such a limited top flight CV
  • Inheriting a squad from the previous regimes that, whilst having some real talent, was supplemented by a number of players who for a variety of reasons were not performing anywhere near the inflated price paid for them and having to perform radical surgery on the team
  • Doing so with a limited budget given the extent to which the ownership felt their money was burned by Commolli and Dalglish
  • Tasked with returning Liverpool to the top 4 – the last time Liverpool were regular entrants in footballs elite club competition Manchester City were in the pre-Mansour days, Tottenham were being rescued from the relegation zone by Harry Rednapp and Everton were being cast as plucky upstarts by David Moyes. 3rd place at the time of writing Southampton were plying their trade in the second tier of domestic English football. Throughout – Sith-Lord Sir Alex Ferguson was managing the second most successful English Football Club
  • Liverpool owned by Fenway Sports Group with a strong pedigree in US sports franchises in terms of football they admitted to being on a very steep learning curve in our national sport and with a lightweight management structure, a seemingly over-promoted MD in Ian Ayre and no qualified decision makers with authority based in the UK – and an appreciable lack of people with experience in top flight football administration to counsel
  • A shambolic first transfer window where Andy Carroll was allowed to leave on loan with no replacement secured leaving LFC to start the season with one recognised striker in Luis Suarez
  • A difficult fixture list that saw Man City, Arsenal and Man United as the first three visitors during the new manger’s reign
  • All of the above heightened to some extent by his own proclivity for talking in management speak but by the club’s ill-judged folly of creating a fly on the wall TV documentary and in spite of the club having final cut some howlers were left in and affecting Brendan’s credibility both with the media and supporters (and undoubtedly potential transfer targets)

Put simply, against this backdrop the subsequent stabilisation of Liverpool under Rodgers should be regarded as a success.

This season

Pleasingly, Liverpool in the early stage of this season are being personified as the archetypal ‘flat track bully’ and in an excellent Kristian Walsh piece at the weekend he took a simple arithmetic approach (one that I also subscribe to). That is, that this Liverpool side can conceivably – and is seemingly purpose built to – beat the bottom 13 clubs home and away and in doing this alone amass the required 78 points to secure the Champions League football that their status in world football demands along with the revenue required by the clubs owners.

However, even champions Manchester United failed to win all these games last term; dropping 9 points from these fixtures – though they were able to power unchallenged to the title through augmenting their dominance of weaker teams with strong performance against their immediate peer group and below.

Liverpool look more capable than in any previous season in the last decade to take victories against the teams that will ultimately finish in the bottom two-thirds of the league table. They will also I believe take points from at least their fair share of their top-third peer group – although this is far from essential for Brendan Rodgers to achieve the season’s stated aim of European (ideally Champions League) competition in the 2013/2014 season.

Liverpool currently occupy second place in the Premier League table. Is this early season hubris? Or is the league table after 11 games a reliable portent for what the rest of the season holds?

In order to understand how strong an indicator the league table is at this stage of the season I took a sobering look at the top four or five positions at this stage of the season (11 games played) in each season since 2009 –

2008/09

11in09

After 11 matches of the 2009 season (Liverpool’s best league season in over a decade) they were joint top with Chelsea. Come May however they were edged out by a resurgent Manchester United despite a points tally that in many other Premier League seasons would have been enough to take the title. Portentously the top 4 at the start of November remained the top 4 come the end of May.

end09

2009/10

11in10

Turmoil behind the scenes saw stark divisions in the club and warring factions that split the club in two – failure to adequately back a Champions League winning and runner up manager who had missed out on the league in the last term saw Liverpool have in relative terms a poor season that cost Rafael Benitez his job.

However, the 63 points amassed by Rafa’s team in 2009/10 remains a high watermark for the club in the intervening period. Again the top 5 11 games in remained the top 5 come the final reckoning in May where Chelsea won the league with 86 points. Liverpool’s absence saw Tottenham take the 4th spot with a tally of 70 points.

end10

2010/2011

11in11

With Rafa sacked, the ‘Fernando Torres’ of finance et al playing fantasy football manager texting his mates about the coup of signing Joe Cole on a free, and the ill-fated appointment of the dour Roy Hodgson amongst the reported the 11th hour take-over of the club just hours from a widely publicised administration during October 2010 an inauspicious on field start may not have been entirely unexpected.

It was a season that saw Liverpool at 9th position 11 games in (after being 18th after 7 games!) however the top 4 after 11 games remained the top four come the end of the season. Manchester United seizing the title with only 80 points!

end11

2011/2012

11in12

After 11 games only Newcastle in 3rd on 25 points and Tottenham equalling 4th placed Chelsea on 22 points threatened to spoil the top 4 party – however come the end of the term, whilst Tottenham made the promised land with a respectable 69 points they did not qualify for the Champions League due having to forfeit their berth to 6th placed Chelsea participating as the Champions of Europe. The closest run season in Premier League history saw Manchester City win the title in injury time on goal difference from Manchester United who had already began their premature celebrations.

Liverpool’s domestic cup progress ultimately contrasted poor progress in the league and in spite of 3 trips to Wembley and silverware Dalglish’s contract was terminated for failing to even realistically challenge for top 4 places.

end12

2012/2013

11in13

11 games in to last season Everton were looking the club most likely to crash the top 4 party and shortly after West Brom also dabbled in the spotlight of the Champions League places – after a very difficult start to a campaign (contextualised earlier) Brendan Rodgers had stewarded his Liverpool to 13th place.

end13

Come May normal service was resumed with Manchester United proceed unfettered to the title with 89 points – 11 clear of their bitter city-rivals. Tottenham once again unlucky that a points tally of 72 not enough to secure a berth in the Champions League and the now regular top 4 retained their place.

Conclusion

So my conclusion is that the league table after 11 games has in many seasons been an early indication of where the teams will end up come the final reckoning. It is however far from reliable – far more reliable is the maxim that the post 2010 top 4 have in the majority of seasons been made up of the usual suspects. And the regularity with which they achieve top four is a testament to their strength as a cabal. Many have tried to break into this cartel of top clubs and failed (with the notable exception of Spurs) in spite of early season promise been later revealed to be pretenders.

So whilst Liverpool and Southampton are currently smiling sat in 2nd and 3rd respectively– it would be considered a major upset if either of these teams manages to supplant even one of the top four incumbents plus a Tottenham Hotspur team that has undergone a major £100m refurb financed by the departure of Gareth Bale.

Premier League 2.0

The phrase was coined heavily in the summer perhaps given the unprecedented levels of managerial change across the upper tier of the league and the retirement of many of the characters the media like to portray as being intrinsic to the narrative of ‘Premier League 1.0.’ Whilst I understood that the media like to have something to generate column inches about and my own personal distaste for their co-option of Football to support their own ends, admittedly thus far the Premier League has an unfamiliar ring to it. ‘Everyone can beat everyone,’ being the current ‘stock phrase’ for the armchair pundit. Perhaps if this is a new era, the wisdom of looking at the recent past may be flawed? Perhaps it doesn’t necessarily inform the future in the way it will have done in previous seasons.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 17, 2013: Liverpool's manager Brendan Rodgers during the Premiership match against Stoke City at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I also comfort myself that when change occurs in football it is rarely predicted accurately – so when United won the league in 1993 whilst they had a great promising team – they did not start the season as favourites for their first title in spite of besting the mighty Aston Villa and Norwich City. Nor did many predict that Liverpool would wait what is now approaching a quarter of a century without a league title?

If this season follows it’s now sadly well trodden path – Liverpool will occupy any position between 5th and 8th. The table is so tight at the moment with only 4 points separating 2nd place and 8th. If however they can bully into submission the bottom two-thirds teams and cover any slips with results against the top third they will amass a points total that would almost guarantee them European football if not the Champions League. The prize that we dare not mention it’s name is potentially up for grabs more readily than in any of the seasons since the tilt orchestrated by Benitez in ’09 – however with more credible suitors than in any previous season.

Almost a third of the way into the season Liverpool are in position that only the most churlish of supporters would criticise – what happens over the next six months is broadly anybody’s guess but if Rodgers can keep swatting away weaker opposition, append the squad with quality additions in January, Liverpool Football Club playing only once a week for the majority of the season, can have a major say in how this season finishes.

Onwards Red Men!

Disclaimer – Past performance may not reflect future performance – your home may be at risk if you do not keep up payments on any mortgage or loan secured on it!

To mark the end of the 30-year wait for a league title, the ‘Liverpool Mishmash’ poster is available to order exclusively on This Is Anfield — the history of the Reds in one image!

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