By Hari Sethi
AS the final whistle blew ending Fulham’s miserable afternoon at Anfield on the Saturday before the international break, players and fans alike celebrated yet another step forward in the now increasingly evident plans of Brendan Rodgers. The Cottagers provided little to no resistance, exemplified by Berbatov’s melancholy demeanour. Yet they came upon a Liverpool side exuding both a confidence and footballing arrogance that supporters have now begun to expect of their side’s home performances.
Arsenal, who once again clung on to their beloved fourth place trophy last season, did so with a total of 73 points, 38 of which were secured at the Emirates, an average of two points per game.
Home form is crucially important to any top four challenge and in recent years Anfield had become far too welcoming a venue for the Premier League’s minnows. Since January, however, LFC have taken 42 points from their last 19 Premier League home games, averaging an impressive 2.21 points per game as Rodgers and co seek to restore Anfield’s reputation as a red fortress.
Rodgers is gradually constructing a team with an increasing number of technically gifted footballers within it. Such technical skills often go unnoticed as British football pundits salivate over the latest crunching tackle. Yet this technical proficiency is largely responsible for the ease with which LFC are currently despatching the league’s lower sides.
Try as they might, sides like Stoke, Crystal Palace and Fulham simply aren’t equipped with enough good footballers to combat the movement, directness and creativity of Suarez, Sturridge and the returning Coutinho.
Even well-drilled defensive outfits, such as Steve Clarke’s West Brom, have come unstuck when attempting to contain the fluidity of Liverpool’s front line. Suarez’s endless love affair with nutmegs means no centre back is safe.
Following the disappointing defeat away to league leaders Arsenal, many were quick to dampen expectations for Rodgers’ side, declaring that such a loss had provided a harsh update on the reality of the current team’s development. Though such responses were valid to an extent, the reaction to the result revealed how greatly expectations have risen amongst Liverpool fans.
Given the immense difficulties of last year’s transitional season and Suarez’s summer transfer saga, many had written off Liverpool’s chances of a top four finish, declaring the competition too fierce and the squad too thin.
Yet heading into another international break, Rodgers’ side lie 2nd in the league, just two points behind Arsenal and with no immediate signs of relinquishing their pursuit of a prized CL place.
Following their much lauded summer window, Spurs look a side struggling for creativity, having scored just nine goals, with only six coming from open play, it’s no wonder their fans are concerned.
Despite arguably having the best squad in the league, the loss of Kompany has brutally exposed City’s defensive weaknesses, with Pellegrini’s side seemingly incapable of earning a clean sheet away from home.
Rather than return in a blaze of glory, Mourinho’s second outing as Chelsea manager has seen a side complete with some of the league’s most creative midfield players resemble a functional, joyless and increasingly laboured looking outfit.
And Moyes…well Moyes is “Moyesing” the hell out of an average collection of Man United players, whose aura of invincibility is eroding rapidly.
United’s home record, once a source of pride, has already been dealt a number of blows, with West Brom, Stoke and Southampton proving there is far less to be worried about since Ferguson’s departure.
Contrastingly, Liverpool look a side with enough tactical flexibility and firepower to pick up points both home and away; unless you press us that is.
The Arsenal result provided a scathing examination of Liverpool’s midfield inadequacies and emphasised the control needed to compete against the top teams. Yet it is victories like that against Fulham, which truly convey the blueprint for LFC’s top four challenge.
Though all Liverpool fans wish to see their team beating the best in the league and enjoying success against more formidable opponents, it’s vitally important that supporters don’t overlook the team’s impressive form against the sides that lie below them.
Following the demolition of Fulham, Rodgers conceded that there was both a ‘vulnerability’ and ‘nervousness’ around the group he inherited in May 2012, with the reds’ failure to despatch defensive visitors at home, particularly noticeable.
Famous for their wastefulness during Dalglish’s final season, Liverpool drew 10 and lost 4 at home, with sides such as Wigan, Fulham and West Brom taking full advantage of the red’s indecisive Anfield form.
Though Rodgers initially encountered the same problem during the early stages of his Anfield career, with LFC drawing six and losing four of their Anfield fixtures, a positive January window ensured such profligacy was put to bed.
Since January, Rodgers has approached such games in a methodical manner, turning his team into one that now relishes the ruthless and somewhat mechanical drubbing of inferior sides.
Many have bemoaned the often-glaring lack of mobility within Liverpool’s midfield this season and whilst such criticism is merited, so is Rodgers’ decision to stick with his system. Composed of a number of ‘flat-track bullies’ Rodgers’ side possess enough quality to amass a sufficient points total, by simply being efficient in the games they should win.
Though the injury forced 3-5-2 formation hasn’t been ideal and often looked vulnerable to attacks in wide areas, its allowance for swift counters has enabled Liverpool to win games despite being far from their best.
Gerrard and Lucas have undoubtedly struggled when pressed by more mobile sides, yet the much-maligned midfield two have consistently displayed their ability to put weaker teams to the sword. The pairing isn’t perfect, but given the majority of opponents it will face, neither is it redundant.
With the return to fitness of the forgotten Joe Allen and greatly missed Coutinho, Liverpool’s performance against Fulham perhaps signals a shift in Rodgers’ intentions and may well reveal a blueprint for how his side will play until the January window.
Plenty of fans seem to struggle with the concept of Liverpool’s formations under Rodgers, with many failing to grasp that his tactical set up is never regimented like that of the archaic Hodge.
Rodgers’ formations are primarily recognised through their defensive shape, which is rarely tampered with, whilst those in the attacking positions are encouraged to be as fluid as possible.
Against Fulham the return of Johnson and Coutinho afforded Liverpool a better-balanced side, with a more functional midfield than fans have seen so far this season. Both Henderson and Coutinho supported the overlapping runs of their fullbacks, whilst also drifting inside, adding numbers to the midfield and greatly increasing the side’s ability to press.
What was most interesting however, was the noticeable change in style Liverpool’s domination took, following the introduction of Joe Allen.
Having been impressive during his side’s difficult start to the previous season, Allen faded through overwork and injury, meaning many have forgotten just how useful the Welshman’s qualities are.
Prior to his introduction the reds had overwhelmed Fulham using the same methods they had against Palace, West Brom and Stoke; high intensity pressing and a fast paced, penetrative approach akin to the pass and move of old.
Yet following Allen’s introduction, Liverpool’s domination appeared reminiscent of the ‘death by football’ approach Rodgers talked about during the early stages of his Anfield career.
A midfield four of Lucas, Allen, Coutinho and Henderson was one that offered greater ball retention and a more suffocating approach to domination of a football match. All four possess the ability to press and retain possession; Allen’s cameo in particular displaying his fondness for harrying of the opposition in advanced positions up the pitch.
Rodgers’ is an unashamed fan boy of the evolution Spanish football has undergone in the past decade; he loves a Welsh Xavi.
And despite Allen’s absence, Liverpool’s performances against the poorer sides this season, have given credence to the belief that technically talented, self-confident footballers will nearly always prevail over the brain-dead brutes that make up such a large percentage of the league.