As Liverpool FC enter a decisive Christmas period, Aaron Cutler reflects on the team’s progress and what may be holding them back.
The modern manager is loath to place too much emphasis on any one game. That said, Brendan Rodgers is all too aware that the next two weeks will define Liverpool’s season.
When the fixture list was announced staff and fans alike identified an inviting start, one promising points and momentum.
At the same time, we all shuddered at the prospect of a brutal Christmas schedule. Santa hardly comes bearing gifts with Spurs, City and Chelsea on the horizon – all away from home.
Nevertheless Liverpool’s start has set them up for a New Year tilt. Just how we fare during this an intriguing period will determine where the team and club stand going into 2014.
There is reason for optimism but that should be tempered by realism also. Yes, the reds have by and large enjoyed a good start to the campaign.
30 points from 15 games is Champions League form, particularly given the unpredictability engulfing our rivals. We have also showcased some fine football, scoring nine goals in the last week alone.
But question marks still remain. It is as if Liverpool stand at a crossroads.
They are approaching a level of excellence but still teeter on the point of mediocrity. Progress is being made but the rate of such will only be born out in the next fortnight.
For all the positives (and there are a great many) a number of issues still handicap this squad. One is off days like we saw at Hull. Granted a huge facet of Rodgers reign to this point has been a greater consistency against lower sides.
Throughout the course of his 18 months in charge, Liverpool have tended to outclass inferior opponents.
Indeed at times we have barely broken a sweat. But capitulations such as that at the KC Stadium mean we are far from the finished article.
Defeats like that happen but the manner of the performance was the alarming thing. No sharpness, inventiveness or fight was evident as we surrendered to a poor, poor side without so much as a whimper.
For all our exquisite football you always feel we have a stinker like that in our locker. Further examples can be found from last season to prove the point– think West Brom at home and Southampton away amongst others.
We have no divine right to win football matches and trips to Hull and the like test your mettle. Liverpool must iron out such wretched showings if they are to reach the next level.
Beating The Big Boys
Similarly we need to start winning games against our so called rivals. The fact Spurs were the only team we managed to beat from those in and around the top four was a big talking point last term.
The statistics themselves hardly told the whole story. We were competitive in a number of those games and some big decisions went against us (Shelvey’s infamous red card comes to mind).
This season we have already beaten United at home but it is away from Anfield that Rodgers needs to pinch points.
Under Brendan we have faced the six teams who finished above us last term a combined nine times away from home. We have not won a single game.
Moreover, excluding cup matches, we have taken five points from a possible 24. However you dress it up, that record is not good enough.
We need resilience on our travels as well as the confidence to replicate our home form. Our meek showing at The Emirates hardly inspires confidence but a top team will go to White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge with no fear.
Away victories themselves are proving hard to come by for most sides this season. Tottenham are leading the way with five wins.
If we supplement our superb home form with points on the road we will be well on course for a haul of 70 points. Liverpool must show greater courage on away days.
So superior are our displays against the bottom 13 clubs at home, we should be aiming for league doubles over each. Great sides such as Ferguson’s United and even the current Arsenal team go away expecting to win and play with that mentality.
It is only when we adopt a similar mindset that we will improve on our seven away victories from last term.
Our squad depth – or rather lack of it – will also be exposed during this testing time. Injuries to Jose Enrique, Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard have led to a reshuffling of the pack.
Unlike those who will ultimately challenge for the Championship, we are unable to call upon great quality in reserve. With Aly Cissokho unfancied John Flanagan has deputised at left-back.
Flanno conducted himself brilliantly in the Merseyside Derby and has done just fine since. Nevertheless he is a limited player, particularly when asked to gallop forward on his less favoured flank.
We need cover at full-back and up-top where Iago Aspas appears to be on a hiding to nothing.
But it is in midfield we appear painfully thin. Even with Gerrard in the side our engine room has been found wanting when pressed high.
When put under pressure they were slow to react and made to look very sluggish in pursuit of possession. They have no answer to that direct pace and guile. Moreover, they visibly tire when run ragged in this way.
On the flipside when faced with inferior opponents who sit deep they are given the freedom of the park and look like world beaters.
Gerrard appeared to roll back the years at home to Fulham, given time and space to spray passes and roam forward at will. He was exceptional.
This came one week after being made to look heavy legged and ineffective by Arsenal. Neither have the stamina to quell a team of that calibre and then influence play further forward in the same motion.
As a duo they can boss two thirds of Premier League games but they and we need quality reinforcements for the acid tests. The manager could also be bold and substitute one of the two when we are being overwhelmed.
Alongside this pair are Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson. Both are decent players but neither are top drawer. Indeed, when comparing our midfield to those of the traditional top five we are worryingly weak.
Between them the owners, manager and transfer committee must identify and secure not one but two quality midfielders. Only then will we become title contenders as opposed to flat track bullies.
Gerrard’s very presence will be a huge miss over Christmas. Always a tremendous player he has matured into a brilliant captain in recent times.
Having let his football do the talking for the best part of a decade, he now fulfils other responsibilities the armband entails.
He is far more vocal on the field, encouraging and berating teammates in equal measure. In addition, he is in the official’s ear more than ever, utilising his status in the game to good effect.
Without him we lack leadership. Only Kolo Toure cajoles in the same vain and minus Gerrard and Jamie Carragher you do worry about our youthful squad when travelling to the likes of White Hart Lane and The Etihad.
The likes of Lucas, Glen Johnson and Jordan Henderson need to assume responsibility. Gerrard will not be around forever and this team needs leadership if it is to navigate a challenging fortnight.
The manager himself is also learning on the job. People forget that Rodgers is 40, a baby in management terms. He is doing a fine job at Liverpool and slowly but surely restoring us back amidst the upper echelons.
Nevertheless his inexperience occasionally tells. His in-game management is not always decisive enough. He was wrong to line-up with four centre backs at home to Saints, slow to change from a 3-5-2 against 10 man Newcastle, slow to withdraw an obviously shattered Victor Moses at Swansea, wrong to start with another 3-5-2 (minus Glen Johnson) at Arsenal, arguably ill-judged to leave Sturridge in reserve at Everton … With greater experience comes greater instinct and Brendan has proven before he can learn from his own errors. He will mature with his team and no doubt spot situations earlier. The quicker he does so, the faster Liverpool will develop.
Our defending of set-pieces is a longstanding issue yet to be addressed. We have already conceded six goals from deliveries into the box this term.
That accounts for 31% of the goals we give away. Last season that figure was 28%. Likewise 26% of the goals we have conceded this term have been headers, up from 21% last year. We are regressing in this regard.
Even with additional aerial physicality (Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho) we are shipping goals too easily in this manner.
Almost all successful teams are founded on a solid rearguard, ours has been anything but. We have kept one clean sheet in our last 13 games. That is appalling.
Against lesser teams we may score our way out of trouble but papering over such cracks will be far harder against stiffer opposition.
Whether a switch back to zonal marking is required or simply extra work on the training ground, change must commence as this is an Achilles heel likely to hold us back.
At the other end our impressive goals tally is coming from a familiar source. Luis Suarez has scored 15 of our 34 league goals this season – an astonishing 44%.
Admittedly, he’s our star striker and paid to do just that but he needs help. To be fair Daniel Sturrdige has been on his game also – 9 goals accountable for 26% of our overall tally.
That means between them they have scored 70% of our goals thus far. Next on our list is Steven Gerrard with three, two of which were penalties. That is both startling and concerning.
Others need to chip in if we are to believe Liverpool are going places. What – if seems possible – Suarez leaves at the end of the season? What – as has happened – Sturridge faces a lengthy injury lay-off?
This is why Liverpool stand at the crux of greatness and mediocrity. With Suarez we seem to be going places but do we rely too heavily on him?
Withdraw the Uruguayan from this side and our position would surely be far more precarious.
The likes of Henderson, Moses, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling must offer more of an attacking threat, not only to support Suarez but increase our all round potency. We will achieve nothing without goals from midfield.
So there you have it. Believe it or not this article is not the work of a doom monger. Liverpool are progressing nicely but the aforementioned frailties are slowing that rate of improvement somewhat.
Should Brendan Rodgers iron out such weaknesses and maintain the core of this squad (then add to it) he has every chance or restoring Liverpool to greatness … eventually.
We have the makings of a very good team and should not let our own complacency hold us back.
The next two weeks will be an interesting barometer as to where we stand. Are we ahead of schedule or still some way short? We should know the answer come January.