Looking through the most frequent Liverpool line-ups this season, you’ll only really see Simon Mignolet as a consistent starter who wasn’t here last season. Kolo Toure and Aly Cissokho have made their fair share of appearances, but more through injuries in the squad than anything else. Mamadou Sakho has made his contribution too, but still had a fight on his hands to get himself into the first team before his injury.
Ahead of the defenders, the likes of Iago Aspas, Victor Moses and Luis Alberto have been used sparingly, meaning our midfield and attack have remained the same as last season; or January onwards at least.
Considering Mignolet is less of a ‘footballing’ goalkeeper than his predecessor Pepe Reina, and Toure and Cissokho are your more ‘no nonsense’ defenders, it is a massive credit to our players just how much our football has come on this season.
Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez have both made significant improvements, both individually and as a partnership, which has seen them both soar to the top of the goal scoring charts. Most people would have been happy for the duo to pick up from where they left off last season, but to see them improve even further has been a key aspect of our successful season so far.
Raheem Sterling deserves a special mention though. Our SAS attackers had pretty much certified their spots in the team, whereas Sterling had endured a tricky six months or so of being out of the team after exploding onto the scene in the early parts of last season. This year started a bit uncertainly for him, and with Brendan Rodgers choosing to bring in Victor Moses on loan, the young winger would have been forgiven for thinking he might not see much first team action this time around.
He made the most of his sparse early opportunities though, and made it impossible to ignore him. He looked completely revitalised, and his familiar direct running and dribbling was now combined with some Dirk Kuyt-esque tracking back and pressing. Aspas and Moses, who had been rotating between the spots between them but were doing little more than making up the 11, were dropped to the bench and credit has to go to Sterling for keeping up his consistency and making the position his own.
Jordan Henderson is another player who has come on leaps and bounds. He has built on what was a steady season for him last year, but his improvements since first joining the club have been drastic. Like Sterling, Rodgers has clearly worked with Henderson on his tactical side of the game, and identified that if he can get him understanding his strategic role now, the technical side of his game will naturally improve with experience and training. The control and discipline to his game now is what has won the fans around to him, and is the reason he has started every single league game this season for Liverpool.
Our impressive performances have come from a very fluid system, and our defenders have had to contribute to that in their own way. Aly Cissokho is not the most talented of footballers, but Brendan Rodgers has made sure he plays to his strengths. On the ball his passing and crossing could use some work, but he is strong and athletic and this allows him to get up and down the pitch and at the very least be an outlet in the wide position and stretch the pitch. Defensively he has come on a lot and is actually not too dissimilar to Jose Enrique in the way he uses his strength and pace to intelligently see off attackers.
Martin Skrtel has been through a lot of ups and downs in recent times. From being player of the season in 2011-12, he had a torrid time last year and was absent for most of our resurgence from January onwards having being dropped to make way for Jamie Carragher. He also started this season out of the team, but injuries and a brief stint with three at the back allowed him to get a run of games, and the Slovak proved he was back to his best and has stayed in the team since. We all know just how good our number 37 can be, but to see him develop the consistency he has, as well as cutting out some silly mistakes, improving his ability on the ball, and being a more authoritative communicator, I think we are now seeing him at the best he has ever been.
Last but not least, local lad Jon Flanagan has taken nearly everyone by surprise with just how much he has come on this season. After a few good appearances under Kenny Dalglish, Flanagan became something of a forgotten man last year, and it seemed like that may have been that for his Liverpool career. Injuries to Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique meant that he came back into the frame, but it still took a big call from Brendan Rodgers to give him the shout ahead of Martin Kelly or Aly Cissokho. The reason for this, the manager said, was the young scouser’s impeccable attitude and application in training. This has certainly carried through to his performances on the pitch, and even when we get everyone back fit, someone has a fight on their hands if they want to dislodge Flanagan from the team.
I think the manager has to take massive credit for how these players have come on over his 18 months or so here. Rodgers gets players performing to their strengths, and then just when you think they’re at 100%, he finds a way to instil the confidence in them that they can still improve further. For the players in the team now, it’s great to see. But it should also act as motivation for those on the sidelines that if they listen to the manager and give their all every day, they will be rewarded not only with minutes on the pitch, but with the fact that he has made them better players for the future as well.