Five points clear at the top of the table. Five points clear, with three games left to play. Maybe it’s Man City’s game in hand obscuring things slightly, but something about that statement just doesn’t seem right.
I can’t even put a number on the amount of times over the years I’ve gone off into a daydream about the day Liverpool will once again win the league. And every single time, I have imagined the last day of the season where we are massive underdogs, and only the unlikeliest of results across the fixtures would see us finish top. And as the 90th minute looms, our rivals concede a goal or two to give us some scrap of hope. Whispers spread over Anfield (I never even contemplated that our final game would be away) that we may be in with a shot after all, and after a frustrating game of few incidents, we enter stoppage time and one hero steps up with a goal out of nothing to crown us champions. Fowler, Owen, Gerrard, Torres, Suarez. Header, volley, 30 yard screamer, back post tap in. I’ve imagined them all and every time it has been brilliant.
Reality is painting quite a different picture though. Everyone now seems to think that it’s our title to lose, and that we have it in the bag. We may well go into the last game of the season as the ‘other’ team in my daydreams. The team who is leading the way whilst the trailing teams feel like they are fighting a losing battle. And only a shock defeat to Newcastle would allow Manchester City or Chelsea the chance to steal the title. Call it paranoia or pessimism, but I’m not going to lie, it scares me.
It’s like the old, and often quite ridiculous, saying that a 2-0 lead is a dangerous situation. Not quite as dangerous as a 2-0 deficit, but the logic is that it allows the complacency to creep in that a one goal lead wouldn’t, and it lacks the security of a three goal lead.
That’s how our title challenge feels at the moment. It’s hard to deny that we are in the driving seat, but it’s certainly far from over. And this is not an implication that our players will be susceptible to complacency. Rather, it’s like a team who haven’t won a game for 24 matches battling their way to a 2-0 lead with 10 minutes to go. On paper it looks like they’ve done it, but there’s always going to be some doubt over a team when they’ve gone so long without a win.
At the start of the season we weren’t even getting a mention when people debated who could finish on top this year. By Christmas, opinions were split as to whether or not we were genuine title contenders. In the past month or so, we’ve gone from being the outsiders in a three horse race, to undisputable favourites.
Having already guaranteed our qualification for next year’s Champions League, our main target for the season has been achieved. But with us sitting at the top of the tree with the finish line in sight, there’s no chance of us letting up.
Having eleven consecutive wins behind us, the prospect of needing seven more points from three games shouldn’t be too daunting. And even that is assuming that Chelsea or Man City don’t drop points elsewhere. If it were either of those two sides in our situation, people might be thinking the title race is as good as over.
But I, and all other Liverpool fans, know not to get too comfortable as we simply don’t do things the easy way. Our last three major trophies have all been won on penalties, twice in situations where we were the favourites from the start of the game. But in 2006 against West Ham, and 2012 against Cardiff, we actually found ourselves trailing for much of the game, and making a meal out of a match that neutrals thought should be ours for the taking.
So as this season comes to a close, I can’t deny my scepticism. At the moment things just seem a bit too straightforward, and my head is telling me that number 19 won’t come unless it’s in a situation where our hearts are firmly in our mouths. I have absolute confidence in this Liverpool team to go all the way, but I’m still expecting a couple of twists and turns yet. Just to keep us on our toes.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)
In the space of 12 months, Liverpool have gone from scoring 67 goals, 54 points and seventh position, where they eventually finished, to occupying first having scored 96 times and accumulating 80 points. I think it’s fair to say that, should Brendan Rodgers and his team go on to win the title this year, this has to go down as one of the most remarkable title successes in history. Stone the crows! Nobody saw this coming.
Brendan Rodgers of course will take a lot of the credit. When I thought about writing this article, I began by thinking: “Rodgers is a good ‘Manager’ in the true sense of the word as opposed to being a good ‘Coach’…”. But then I thought: “Actually, no, he’s a good ‘Coach’ in view of his tactical nous…”. But the fact is he’s both of these. Rodgers is an impressive blend of Coach and Manager. Yes, he obviously manages the club in terms of organisation of the scouting. The first, reserve, and academy team tactical strategies. The medical wellbeing of the players, etc. All the things you’d expect of a ‘Manager’ per se. His tactical awareness, courage and willingness to learn from the mistakes he made have taken the side to where they are. Surely this makes him a great ‘Coach’. But there are other things he brings that have assisted Liverpool’s development over this last year.
His strength has been his ability to develop the players. Tactically, and in terms of responsibility and expressing themselves on the pitch in accordance with their strengths. There are no end of examples in the current squad. The improvements in players like Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan has been nothing short of extraordinary. This is evident in his individual relationships with the players. If you look at the reaction from Sterling to his first goal yesterday, he celebrated with the manager as well as the team and this is a perfect demonstration of the connection he’s made with the players.
Rafa Benitez by contrast, was someone who managed the ‘team’ and not the ‘players’ and there’s a subtle difference between the two. You see, If you treat a squad of 16 players as one and speak to them as one, you’ll develop a group. They’ll view themselves as being a group. This is fine. Team spirit etc.. However, like any group in life, be it a couple or a team, it’s nothing without the individual and this is where the current boss excels. He uses his position as the Boss to motivate the players through his relationship with them on an individual level.
Yesterday against Norwich, Sterling scored twice. His performance against Manchester City last weekend was arguably, his best in a Liverpool shirt yet. Since the turn of the year the improvements in his performances have been mainly due to his greater confidence and willingness to explore and exploit space which, in turn has led to him scoring more goals. This demonstrates that Rodgers, through his relationships with the player, has been able to communicate ideas that the player himself will “buy into” and acknowledge the benefit.
Henderson is another example. He, in my opinion was missed yesterday. His work rate and stamina is noticeably higher than Allen’s and this is probably why he’s been an ever-present in the midfield. Henderson has developed into a more confident player under Rodgers and this translates into courage on the pitch. The lad has increased his individual motivation and this I believe, can only come from a one-on-one connection or communication. He undoubtedly has an abundance of skill and natural footballing ability. This hasn’t changed. Henderson I would consider, to be the best option the club has as a replacement to Steven Gerrard. He’s perhaps not going to be as influential but then players like Gerrard, to be fair to Henderson, only come along once, maybe twice, in a generation. Having said that Henderson in 10 years Gerrard’s Junior so he has time.
For all the effect Rodgers has on the side, one can’t forget it’s the players that carry out the tactical plan, the team at the Manager’s disposal have been magnificent this season. Remember, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink! Perhaps an odd analogy but without willing on the part of the player, it doesn’t matter who the manager is. If he’s not prepared to ‘drink’ the boss will have a very, very long wait. However, Rodgers has been able to ‘persuade’ the proverbial horse to drink. He has succeeded in persuading the players to think like winners. This for me, is probably the single biggest contributor to the individual, and thus, team improvement. The clubs employment of Dr. Steve Peters has been instrumental in this. The players have always had the ability, it’s the mentality that’s been missing.
Sport is half ability and half belief. Because it is challenge. I’m absolutely convinced that a player with less ability than his peer can achieve more, simply by virtue of his belief. His mentality. His will. The greatest obstacle to the advancement of Mankind is himself and, although others may say otherwise, the Footballer is among this group. The obstacle of ‘self’, between success and failure has been evident in Liverpool’s inability, in recent seasons, to defeat teams who one could describe as having lesser ability. Or ‘quality’ as it’s called these days. Rodgers’ deployment of Dr. Peters is a prime example of the difference this can make. The difference between believing or not. Ultimately, the difference between winning and losing.
I can’t say I KNOW that Liverpool will win the title, but I can say I BELIEVE they will. Should they be successful, then I further believe that the team will go on to achieve great, great success. Simply because they have the three ingredients necessary: A great Manager, great players, and a winning mentality.
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