Steven Harris looks at Liverpool’s transformation since December and confesses he was wrong about Brendan Rodgers’ ability to turn things around.
I have to admit something. I have to admit that I was wrong. In December I lost faith in the work Brendan Rodgers has been doing at Liverpool and began to feel he was a little like a modern Kevin Keegan manager, an ‘if you score five we’ll score six to win’ sort of manager.
I was fairly convinced that the loss of last season’s sensational strike force, Suarez to Barcelona and Sturridge to persistent injuries, left Rodgers’ tactical decisions exposed as nothing more than, run fast, score quick, blow away opponents before they can catch their breath. Especially when this tactic failed against Manchester City in August. Even more so as the purchase of Ballotelli implied there might be more tactical diversity to allow for the fact that Mario simply is not a run fast sort of player.
The nadir came for me in what actually proved to be the turning point of the season. Late December, with Sturridge still weeks away from a return to fitness and the squad, Rodgers went to a three centre-backs with two wing-backs system against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Liverpool lost 3-0. Shipping goals had been a problem in 2013/14 but the strikers wiped that issue out. Reverting to a Roy Evans type of formation on the pitch did not seem to suggest a revival of fortunes and the possibility of developing greater defensive strength.
However, that’s exactly what has happened. Even in defeat against Chelsea over two legs of the League Cup semi-final Liverpool’s new formation meant they were constantly in contention and frequently the better side. Even when being dumped out of the Europa League last week to Besiktas it was not the system or the players who failed. Perhaps fatigue played a part.
No team, however confident and strong defensively they have managed to become, can go on winning forever. Liverpool’s record unbeaten home run which was stacked up between the late seventies and early eighties was eventually ended by Leicester City, as lowly a top table side then as they are now. Sometimes teams just lose because they don’t win not because the manager is a failure or the players are rubbish.
Which is where I have to admit again that in December, after that United game, I was beginning to wonder if the manager was failing and if the legion of players brought in during the summer were any good.
Rodgers and the team have proven me wrong. The change of fortunes began before Sturridge was available for selection and now that he is nearer full-fitness Liverpool have the best recent form record of any Premier League team.
It’s not just the change of tactics. Some of the new players have settled in at last. In particular crowds are beginning to see the diversity that might mean Emre Can is a potential long-term replacement for the drive and vision of Steven Gerrard.
Lazar Markovic has improved and impressed too but perhaps needs a few lessons on anger management lest he start to become a Suarez-style bad-mojo magnet.
Alberto Moreno now looks more comfortable in the role of a wing-back than he initially seemed. Raheem Sterling is another whose versatility has seen the tricky winger picked as a lone striker even when genuine striking options such as Balotelli or Borini have been available.
Philippe Coutinho has remembered he is not just a skilful little maestro but that he’s a skilful little Brazilian maestro, one his country could build a team around after the demoralising implosion they suffered in the World Cup semi-final last year.
There has been a change in Simon Mignolet too. At the end of the year it seemed as though Rodgers had lost patience with his keeper’s inconsistencies and poor decision-making and he dropped him for the United game, putting Brad Jones in goal. It was clearly not a long-term plan to replace Mignolet with Jones but it did seem likely that another keeper would be brought in during the January transfer window. Jones picked up an injury before the window opened and somehow a reinstated Mignolet has rid himself of the jitters and looks in better command of his goalmouth.
Martin Skrtel is becoming more of a communicator in the back three. Can is excellent as a centre-back too but we all pretty much know his future is as a midfield general. For now, however, it is comforting to feel that even when the Liverpool defence is under the cosh there is every chance they will soak the pressure up and snatch something on the break.
Which is what the team did in their last away league fixture at Southampton. It wasn’t the best performance of the recent run by a long shot but the 2-0 win chalked up five away clean sheets in a row for the first time since the likes of Hansen and Lawrenson graced the defensive line.
Over the weeks I’ve realised I was too hasty in my dismissal of the manager’s abilities and wrong about some of the new singings. Even Ballotelli looks impressive sometimes.
If proof were needed then Sunday’s lunchtime home game against Manchester City, barely two and a half days after that tiring defeat in Istanbul showed that Liverpool have indeed regenerated the team spirit and dogged determinism of last season.
An early, incredible goal from captain on the day and captain in waiting Jordan Henderson (another whom fans are finally beginning to see the value of out there in terms of graft and communication as well as skill) was snuffed out a few minutes later by City.
Liverpool did not crumble. The legs stretched and strained by chasing Besiktas all over the pitch for most of the 120 minutes on Thursday did not give way. And, just like last season’s Anfield 3-2 epic, Coutinho scored a spectacular winner only this time with fifteen minutes to go which gave the defensive qualities of the side another chance to shine.
Second might be unlikely this year. There will be no League Cup or Europa League victory but Liverpool are now in fifth place, three points behind third and an automatic slot for Champions League football next year. Plus they have a decent draw in the FA Cup quarter final on the horizon.
In December I felt we were going backwards. I now appreciate more fully that sometimes a step backwards can be vital in order to move forwards once more. I do believe I am beginning to dream. Again.