THE New Year is often a time for self-reflection and self-evaluation; out with the old, in with the new. Twelve months ago you could’ve forgiven Liverpool fans for wanting to see the back of 2012; but as we enter 2014 in our healthiest league position since Rafa Benitez’s heyday it is cause for optimism.
The three seasons that followed 2008-9’s flirtation with title glory were unmitigated disasters. A textbook case of “how to degenerate a Champions League squad into mid-table mediocrity fodder for dummies”.
It’s instructive to look at Liverpool’s point tallies for calendar years since 2008: 2008 – 84 points, 2009 – 74 points, 2010 – 52 points, 2011 – 71 points, 2012 – 46 points and 2013 – 69 points. The alarming 32 point drop-off from 2008 to 2010 illustrates the macabre denouement of the Hicks-Gillett reign. The 2011 renaissance represents the honeymoon of Kenny Dalglish’s return, and 2012 the ramifications of its rampant short-termism.
If 2012 itself was a league table it would make for miserable reading. Despite yielding a first trophy in six years 2012 proved to be nothing short of an annus horribilis. The club took 46 points from a possible 117 across the calendar year, scoring just 56 goals in 39 games whilst conceding a staggering 51 and winning just six times at Anfield.
2013 hasn’t been quite the annus mirrabilis but it has been undisputedly Liverpool’s best calendar year since 2008 – though more points were won in 2011, the points per game average is 1.9 for 2013, compared to 1.8 then – and their most successful in the transfer market since 2007. The Reds accrued 69 points in 37 games across the calendar year; the 84 goals scored exceeding the rest of the Premier League.
After leading the table at Christmas for the first time since 2008, Liverpool end the year a more somberly fifth. But to fall from first to fifth in a week – particularly the week between Christmas and New Year – is unique to this season; it has never happened before, no-one is safe and nothing is predictable.
Two defeats in a row – for the first time in the league under Rodgers – will not disguise the enormous improvements made in the past 12 months, nor act as a reality check. Single goal defeats to the two strongest squads in the league are not cause for re-evaluation; that they have cost Liverpool four places in the table act as a reminder of what is at stake this year, and the small margins that will define the table come May.
Liverpool have staggered out of the woods of mediocrity; the hard labours of “Year Zero” and the replacement of Kenny Dalglish with Brendan Rodgers are bearing fruit.
Not since 2007 or 2008 season have Liverpool been significantly better than the Liverpool of 12 months before. 2013 has gone as well as any Liverpool supporter could have reasonably hoped for or expected.
The 2-1 Boxing Day defeat to Manchester City has been hailed in some quarters as the first time a defeat has brought a club into a title race. The optimism that has surged out of defeat contrasts so violently with the deflation and pessimism that met the 3-1 reversal at Stoke 12 months earlier.
It was the nadir of league performances in Rodgers’ first season; though West Brom at home and Southampton away rival it, they were anomalies in amongst the strong finish to 2012-13.
The Boxing Day debacle at Stoke was a dismal surrender which came hot on the heels of Aston Villa and Christian Benteke gatecrashing Anfield. Liverpool were outfought, out-thought and out-performed at the Britannia that day, with Rodgers’ naivety and failure to learn from mistakes all too evident. It was an illustration of the teething problems that accompanied the first half of Rodgers’ first season, where solutions and improvements were out of reach, marooned on the distant horizon.
I wrote a few days later, in a post on my website The False Nine, “Rodgers needs to learn to adopt pragmatism when his doctrine is not working. He is too scared to betray a dogma that he is almost slavishly devoted to. It was almost prophetic that Rodgers’ side were so effortlessly disposed of by a club who have backed the convictions of their manager with both time and money.”
Watching Liverpool press and harry a Manchester City side that had scored 36 goals in nine home games was a world away from the one who meekly surrendered at the Britannia that day – a year is a long time in football. As was evident in the 5-0 routing of Spurs, this is a Liverpool beginning to reflect their manager’s footballing ideals, which are ever-more transferable than when he rode into Anfield 18 months ago.
It’s not quite “death by football”, but it’s progressive, attacking and, at times, relentless football, headed by a Uruguayan who has no peers in this league. His brilliance propels the team. Many ask where Liverpool would be without him, but few ask where Luis Suarez would be without Rodgers.
The manager has coaxed the best out of a player who had undoubted potential and prowess when he arrived here almost three years ago. Under Dalglish, Suarez scored 15 goals in 44 league games; under Rodgers, 42 in 46. Not just a scorer of great goals anymore, but a great goalscorer to boot.
He is the manifestation of the vitality that Rodgers has breathed into Liverpool’s football, so tired and formulaic that it was 18 months ago. The return of Fortress Anfield is the proof.
The Liverpool of December 2013 is more settled than any in the last five years. The ideal still alludes; improvements are many and obvious, but the potential for solutions is palpable. That it’s taken over three years since FSG’s takeover to make the club competitive illustrates both the magnitude of their job in repairing the corrosive reign of Hicks and Gillett, and their own manifold mistakes since.
The Being Liverpool narrator, Clive Owen, spoke of a ‘three-year lull of mediocrity for a club synonymous with glory.’ 2014 promises much; at the very least Rodgers and his squad should be seeking to consolidate the strides made in 2013. The disaster of 2012 remains a stark reminder of how difficult that can be, but the club are in an immeasurably better place than they were two years ago.
Then the club declined to enter the January transfer market; it paid the price. Now it is a matter of urgency, and a challenge that will be met head on. Standing still is not an option.
The plan in August would have been to arrive at the January window in striking distance of the top four. Liverpool may sit just a point below it, but the fascinating chaos that is the post-Fergie Premier League season leaves leaders Arsenal just six points away. Of the top seven, Liverpool have only Old Trafford to visit, while Everton, Arsenal, Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea are all due at Anfield before season’s end. Opportunity knocks.
Watching Liverpool play football at the moment is at its most enjoyable since the spring of 2009; long may it continue. Christ, even Henry Winter’s writing nice things.