Last night’s game against Chelsea gave me that buzz that I haven’t had in far too long. Watching a relentless Liverpool face up to the opposition, whoever it may be, with quick passing, intense pressing, confident dribbling, aggressive defending, and creative attacking is a special feeling, and maybe we were a bit spoilt last season in how often we felt it.
So far this season, not only have we not seen that kind of performance, but nothing has really suggested we were even capable of it anymore. Right from the off, we looked like we’d regressed three or four years, and suddenly forgot everything that led to our second place finish last year. We were slow, laboured, predictable, and at times calamitous.
The system we have employed to instigate our mini-revival is an odd one, and almost certainly not what Brendan Rodgers had in mind when conducting his business over the summer. But looking at the squad at our disposal now, it’s a formation that gets our best and most in-form players on the pitch, with the most important ones in their best positions, and the most versatile ones filling in the gaps.
Our defence is looking as solid as it has in a long while, with Emre Can acting as the ‘extra’ defender, who tactically may not be operating in his best role, but his energy, enthusiasm, and strength make up for it, while his ability to bring the ball out from the back has proved vital. The high balls towards our box that have caused us so many problems before are now being dealt with a lot more efficiently, as the defender who comes to claim it knows he can fully commit to the challenge, with the other two covering behind in case it does get knocked on.
Also improving our solidity at the back is the deployment of Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson as the ‘protecting’ midfield two, as opposed to Steven Gerrard who was single handedly doing that role before. Lucas has made another fantastic return to form after it seemed for a while that his Anfield career could be over. His positioning, tackling, and intelligent pressing is showing us what we missed when the skipper was used in that role, while Henderson’s energy off the ball, and ability on it, is contributing to a nicely balanced midfield. The combination and understanding of the two players allows them to move forwards and back as one, offering the necessary protection to the defence, whilst also reinforcing the attack, and sweeping up behind it in the case of any attempted counter-attacks.
Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno are both well suited to the wing back/wide midfield role as they like to provide the width and be an outlet, are quick enough to bring the ball forward themselves or keep up with play and get in the box, but also work hard enough to get back into position and track their men when necessary. Both are young and raw, but have chipped in with a couple of goals each and shown the potential to improve. They may not be playing in the position they expected, but their work ethic is standing them in good stead.
Perhaps the area that has offered the biggest improvement to our game has been the utilisation of two ‘number 10s’, meaning that the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, and Steven Gerrard can be played in (arguably) their best position, with the chance to be let off the leash a bit. In other formations, we’d seen Gerrard back as a holding midfielder, and one or both of Coutinho and Lallana operating out wide where they get less freedom. Seeing our most creative players being simply allowed to get forward and express themselves has been a joy to watch, and Coutinho in particular has thrived. With those players available and the role they are playing, the idea of Daniel Sturridge being the one feeding off their attacks is a very exciting prospect.
Last night it all just seemed to click. Chelsea barely got a sniff. We dominated them all over the pitch, winning all the loose balls, second balls, and 50/50s. We attacked well, and should have scored more. Chelsea didn’t even muster another shot on target other than the penalty. It’s hard to argue that they are the best team in England right now, but we made them look very ordinary. The result may not have been a million miles from the 2-1 defeat we suffered in November, but the performance was.
Whether it’s long term or just a stopgap, we’ve at least found a system that has allowed us to put a good run of results together, regain some confidence, and give us reason to be optimistic heading into the second half of the season.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)