Liverpool’s start to the season has been much a case of stark contrasts. On one hand, they have shown glimpses of performing to a Champions League required standard with performances against Manchester United. On the other hand, they have looked fragile; particularly their susceptibility to opposition set-pieces and direct teams who press the Reds like Southampton who overcame them at Anfield.
What they have found is an increase efficiency up-front, they have had 40% (58 of 144) of their shots on target this season. Of these 58 shots, they have scored 17 which means 28% of their shots on target are goals.
Compare this to teams close to Liverpool in the table, Chelsea and Spurs both on 20 points. Chelsea have had 170 shots (including blocked) this season, with 54 of those on target. Of these 54, they have scored 16 meaning they have converted slightly more than the Reds with 30% of their shots on target hitting the back of the net.
Spurs meanwhile have had a monumental 175 shots in the league, which is the most of any team. Of these 175 just 59 have been on target meaning that only 33% of their shots tested the opposition keeper, in addition only 9 of these shots have been scored which leaves their converted percentage at a lowly 15% which is the worst in the league.
This evidence suggests that Liverpool are on the right track offensively, even despite being relatively silenced against Arsenal’s tough back four. Chelsea and Tottenham’s overwhelming forward depth further suggests the Merseyside club are perhaps outperforming their rivals. Whilst an injury to a forward could prove hurtful to either side’s form, it would not potentially derail their season like it could Liverpool’s. For example, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have contributed a monumental 61% of their side’s goals (35 of 57) since 2 January.
They have largely been able to mask substandard performances as they use their individual quality to overcome the lower Premier League teams such as Crystal
A marker to their progress was their comprehensive defeat of West Brom, who they failed to score against in two games last season. On aggregate, the Baggies beat Liverpool 5-0 last season but the Reds took one step to avenging this with a 4-1 win last month in which “SAS” shone.
The Anfield outfit have experienced a dearth of midfield control in recent games. This has prompted some to suggest Rodgers should consider dropping the ever-present “Captain Fantastic” due to his declining level of performances. Gerrard though has dominated Liverpool’s creative influence in the absence of Coutinho. Gerrard has played 679 passes and the nearest other player to that figure is Jordan Henderson with 525.
This suggests that Stevie G still plays a decisive role within the midfield, he has created 20 chances this season with only Henderson and Suarez creating both 11. Gerrard has played every single game for Liverpool this season, including both Capital One Cup games in which one went to extra time. Many have called for the Reds to use 33-year-old as Ferguson did with Scholes, to use him as an impact sub or sparingly throughout the season. The rotation of the England captain would allow Rodgers to experiment with a midfield that may remain long after Gerrard has retired, with Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson yet to really play alongside each other.
Gerrard’s ageing self means that his ability to rewrite a footballing script instantaneously has long faded. The days of his all-round performances have gone, as much as the man himself would not like to admit it. This means he has had to adapt to a deeper lying role. This has created a problem in the Liverpool midfield. As the Telegraph wrote: “Such is the level Gerrard has maintained throughout his career, any bad performance jars. His 90 minutes against Arsenal was one of his worst in recent memory. His passing was erratic, while his movement off the ball was one-paced and lackadaisical.” But it is understandable that Rodgers is hesitant to drop the talisman, but the midfield has become a problem with him being almost guaranteed 90 minutes every game due to his status within the club.
This deficiency was crucial in their underwhelming loss to Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday evening. The Gunners’ midfield terrorising trickery and of Ozil, Ramsey, Santi Cazorla and Rosicky was too much for the Liverpool trio of Lucas, Gerrard and Henderson to handle.
Nevertheless they have experienced much improved fortunes compared to the start of their last campaign, Liverpool have almost double the amount of points they did by ten games into their 2012-13 season, with 20 this year compared to just 11 last year. By the same stage they had only registered two wins, against Norwich and Reading and five draws, whereas this season they have six wins and only two draws. Not only this but their overall performances are greatly improved, this is reflected in the difference in goals scored and conceded. They had scored 13 and conceded 15 by the 10 game mark of the Northern Irishman’s first Anfield campaign, but they have currently scored 17 and conceded only 10. This evidence shows that in only a year, Rodgers has helped tighten a leaky defence and increase the quality and ruthlessness of their forward line.
By the beginning of November they sat a lowly 12th, in contrast to them sat joint 2nd with Chelsea, who have been hotly-tipped to lift the Premier League crown this season. In fact Rodgers has transformed Liverpool within this calendar year, since 2 January they have lost just five of 27 league games. They have also only drawn eight, this form alone since the turn of the year suggests they are on course for European football.
Brendan Rodgers has been pivotal in his side’s steady start which has been contrast to their start in his inaugural campaign. The Reds have gained 20 from 30 points with the obvious headline act of Daniel Sturridge, whose instrumental input has helped fire the Merseyside club to the heights of the table as he has climbed to the summit of the top goal scoring charts. The English international has contributed 47% of his side’s goals with only Southampton and Arsenal preventing him from scoring this season, coincidentally those two games were the only league games in which Liverpool have failed to score altogether.
Sturridge has been further aided by Luis Suarez’s return, who has contributed to another 35% of The Reds goals. The newly-dubbed “SAS” partnership up-front has rectified the club’s reluctance to lose the insubordinate Uruguayan in the summer; despite criticism that the club’s long-standing reputation had dilapidated due to the intractable antics that accompany the 27-year-old. In spite of the endless rumours claiming he was unhappy at Anfield, in just four games since Suarez’s return from a 10 match ban him and Sturridge have scored 10 goals and contributed three assists in five matches. The duo have scored 14 goals between them and even hit the woodwork five times, earning them many plaudits in the progress. Suarez has even been given 3 Man of the Match awards and the Player of the Month since his return against Sunderland which shows his influence on the club.
Jordan Henderson has also further exhibited his enhancements this year. After recently coming under unwarranted criticism in Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography for his gait, which the former United boss claimed would cause him injury problems later on his career, he exemplified maturity to brush aside such harsh judgement and contribute to his side’s 4-1 win over West Brom. Henderson was deployed alongside Steven Gerrard in an attacking ‘5-1-2-2’ adaptation of the ‘5-3-3’ system Rodgers has recently experimented with. For the first time this season, Liverpool’s midfield produced a thoroughly convincing performance which enabled the entire side to produce a superb performance for the full 90 minutes for the first time this campaign.
Although lacking the flair of other players within the team, Henderson’s unarduous and burdensome responsibilities are equally as vital within the side. His role of doing the “dirty” work complements the technically efficient players within the side, particularly as Rodgers takes advantage of his seemingly infinite levels of stamina to close down the opposition and force them into mistakes.
Though several individuals are producing countless moments of brilliance has perhaps overshadowed the Reds inept defending at set pieces has cost them this season, with 38% (5/13) of their goals conceded coming from set pieces in all competitions, including the only goal in their only league defeat of the season at home to Southampton. Whilst this may not prove massively important so far, the problem could spiral out of control if not dealt with in some capacity within the next few weeks. Another recurring theme is that Liverpool are inferior against the “top” teams, this is eerily reminiscent of last season where they performed well against the top six sides but failed to take the points. They won just one of 12 games against those who finished above them taking ten points from a possible 36. What’s more, they only managed three wings from 18 games against the top 10, triumphing over Tottenham, West Ham United and Swansea.
The Reds’ system was completely faltered against Arsenal, as they persisted with a system that relies on top-quality wingbacks. However as they lacked Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique and instead played with Jon Flanagan and Aly Cissokho they simply did not have the quality necessary to quell the opposition’s attacking threat. As opposed to reverting to a back four and opting to reinstate Daniel Agger into the starting line-up, Rodgers stuck with a system that Liverpool have failed to yet keep a clean sheet with. Statistics show that the visitors had just 32% of possession with a three central defenders but when they switched the system to a back four they kept 65% of possession.
As opposed to the three clean sheets they kept in their previous formation, they have failed to keep even one since. Is this a coincidence? Surely not, as the opposition they have faced is of a similar standard to the teams they faced. Mignolet has even been beaten by Crystal Palace who have registered just six goals all season.
With Glen Johnson, Jose Enrique, Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen all soon to come into contention perhaps a viable alternative would be for Rodgers to experiment with an adapted 4-4-2. A diamond midfield with Lucas Leiva as the defending midfielder and Henderson and Gerrard based further forward and then Coutinho as the creative influence behind the strong partnership of Suarez and Sturridge up-front. The only significant headache the Northern Irish boss would be who to opt for in central defence. The partnership of Sakho and Agger would be perhaps the most intricate defence and the best pairing for Rodgers’ passing philosophy. However Toure and Sakho would probably be the “toughest”, but then there is Martin Skrtel and even young prospect Tiago Ilori whom Rodgers can consider for a starting berth.
Something rather bitter sweet for Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool scouting committee is the success of Diego Costa and Henrikh Mkhitaryan at Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund. The two were openly known as the Reds’ transfer targets but since failing to sign them both they have flourished on domestic and international stages.
Costa has scored 15 goals and contributed one assist in 13 La Liga and Champions League games. In fact the Brazilian forward has only failed to score against Espanyol, Atleti’s only loss all season. Meanwhile Mkhitaryan has got four assists and five goals in 12 Bundesliga and Champions League games. Liverpool fans can rejoice from the success of their summer scouting, especially after the successful recruits of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge last January.
Kopites will be hoping that Rodgers has players of a similar quality in his sights this summer so that they can push on towards that lucrative Champions League football the club has so long craved to return to. Brendan Rodgers and his side have a lot to prove beforehand, the question is will they be able to?