Last season it became a bit of a cliché. We were ‘a work in progress,’ ‘a team in transition,’ and ‘steadying the ship.’ That’s not to say it wasn’t true; after the debacle of Hicks and Gillett, moving on to our fourth manager in two years, and a string of constant short-term solutions and stop gaps, we finally had some solidity and just had to accept the fact that it may take a year or two to recover and set ourselves back on course.
In that sense, last season pretty much went as expected. Brendan Rodgers was settling into the job, implementing new methods and techniques both on and off the pitch, and it took time for things to click.
Upon acceptance of his three year deal at Liverpool, Rodgers went on record to say that he expected it to take the full duration of that contract to set us right and get us fighting for the top four spots that we were aiming for. Maybe this was just to assert an air of caution, as I know that most fans wanted to see us progress quicker than that. But it goes to show the magnitude of the job Rodgers saw ahead of him.
Liverpool’s 2012-13 season will go down as a distinctly average one. A 7th place finish and very little progress in the three cup competitions we were entered in was nothing at all to shout about. But it was a necessary season that we needed to accept simply as the progression and transition of the team under the guidance of a manager who we were looking to lead us for the long term.
We were nowhere even near finishing in the top four. But a year on from his arrival and with the manager at least starting to put his stamp on the team, we expected the development to be clear this season. If there was a rough three year plan, then this year should have been the year we at least competed to finish fourth, and started to look like a team worthy of being in the Champions League.
Without getting too ahead of ourselves either way, this season has gone far better than expected, and for the most part we have been more involved in the title race than the top four battle. That being said, with 10 games remaining things could still go badly wrong, and I stick by my stance at the start of the season that I would accept a fourth place finish as a very good season for us.
My reason for this is that I looked at this year as yet another transition season for us. In 2012-13, we never quite identified ourselves as to how we wanted operate as a team. Pre-January in particular, it was more just a case of Brendan Rodgers making the best of what he had at his disposal, and lining the team up initially in ways that didn’t quite match the personnel we had available, so then having to change things and come up with other solutions. And to be fair to him, the manager showed a complete willingness to adapt his ideas if something didn’t quite work. At one point, we had a starting 11 that contained Stewart Downing at left back and Jose Enrique on the left wing, but it was because that was what was working for the team at that time.
That has continued into this season, with us utilising a number of different formations, and players like Luis Suarez, Jordan Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho playing several different roles throughout the season for the good of the team. Recently our 11 has been picking itself due to a combination of injuries and form, but looking at the players we have lined up with there are three or four different formations that they could all fit into, which means we can be flexible in how we approach a game without needing to chop and change the players involved. We can go with Suarez or Sturridge up front, we can use Coutinho playing from deep or more advanced, and Raheem Sterling can swap from left to right wing without a problem.
This is just an example of us having fluidity within the players we have out on the pitch, but anytime Rodgers has felt the need to change system, he has done so too. Earlier in the season, we tried three at the back. We’ve gone through different variations of 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, and even in our last game against Southampton, we lined up with a diamond in midfield to exploit weaknesses in the opponent.
But like last season, a lot of how we’ve lined up has been to do with the fact that we have a small squad, and our lack of cup games has meant there has been no real need to rotate. Therefore we can just put our best 11 players out there each week in the system that best suits them.
The reason this may be yet another transition season (albeit a very successful one) is that we are still working out exactly what system we are looking at to move forwards with. Brendan Rodgers himself admitted that he has had to alter his tactics to accommodate playing Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together, as they are both too good not to play, but it can upset the balance of the team if they are both playing up front where they would want to be.
Which is why it is important that we at least get a rough blueprint of how we want out team to look. Come the summer it will be better to sign the players to suit the system we have in mind, than to just sign a handful of good players but then squeeze them in however we can. Look at Tottenham this season for an example of how that usually works out.
Obviously we want to have the best players possible and we want to be able to adjust to as many systems as possible, but Brendan Rodgers will surely have a vision of how he sees us lining up with his ideal set of players. You do get the feeling that the manager has learnt a lot this season, and his readiness to change with no sign of stubbornness is a major part of what has seen him be so successful so far. Minor adjustments in the roles of the likes of Gerrard, Coutinho and Henderson are examples of the tweaks he has made over the course of the year as he looked for the best way to utilise what he had available to him. Luckily, after a lot of experimentation this season, it seems that he is finding the answers at just the right time.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)