This has been an extraordinary season. Logic and order have taken a back seat as we’ve rode the steepest of roller coasters. A flying start, a rival bested early on, the routine hammering of the dross, two narrow defeats against title contenders and the utter joy and madness of Luis Suarez – all encapsulated into five short months. At the time of writing we lie in fourth place but with Everton, Spurs and United all to play today.
I can’t make this current version of Liverpool out and it’s great. We’re an absolutely mad side, capable of beautiful football but with a soft defensive underbelly. It’s like 1997 all over again. All the usual rules and truths have evaporated. We’ve put ten goals, ten!, in at White Hart Lane and the Brittannia, we’ve seen Suarez score every type of glorious goal – so much so that no one talks about his first header at West Brom anymore which, frankly, was ridiculous. We’ve seen Jonjo Shelvey play for and against Liverpool in the same game. Insane. We’ve seen Jose Enrique – the dictionary definition of unhinged. Then on the other hand we’ve been unfathomably terrible. A pretty formidable collection of centre backs, on paper at least, with the concentration span of Jeffery Lebowski. We’ve had the second half drop offs and we’ve had Mason and Webb. Alright, that last one was beyond our control but, suffice to say, life has been far from dull in L4.
This is all before you look at the midfield. Christ knows what’s happening there.
Despite all this we’re in fourth place – the target for the season so we’re on track at least. I’ve no idea how.
It may be an over-simplification but we seem to be brilliant in one third of the pitch, confusing in the middle and lightweight at the back. In some ways that’s a good thing as it means we can at least work on specific areas. I doubt Suarez and Sturridge come off the field to bollockings as they’re holding us up at times. In fact, there are times this season when the role of the front three has been to outscore the fuck ups of the defence – not unlike the Klinsmann inspired Spurs side of the mid 90s. Yesterday was Liverpool 2 Liverpool 2.
Having an quality third of a team is a decent start and it’s been good enough to elevate us to fourth. A strong forward line equals goals equals points. Likewise a tight defence will always get you somewhere whereas just having an above average midfield won’t mean a thing. We’re lucky to be great in the right part of the pitch. It’s clear what Brendan needs to work on.
It’s particularly maddening as we have the players in the right areas. Yesterday, Villa, shows just how significant Lucas is to that side. Henderson has been a revelation and is possibly my favourite player (I love shouters and players whose default setting is ‘Furious’) while Allen has looked more like the player Brendan had at Swansea. Then there’s Gerrard but that’s a longer and more painful argument. These are all good players, great in their own way, but why is the midfield still an enigma? The ingredients are there. Why are they incapable of providing a screen to our shaky centre backs? Where are the goals? They’re neither fish nor fowl. They’re just sort of there, taking up positions on the pitch. Not always, of course. They’re pretty good when playing against poorer opposition – Palace and Tottenham in particular, who gave us large spaces to run into – but when pressed (Arsenal and Chelsea) they offer little. Is it the personnel? I don’t think it is, although I’d love to see a Dembele equivalent in there, but for some reason the good ingredients don’t make the best soup.
There is a direct correlation between the midfield and poor defence. At Southampton last season we lost the game thanks to a mixture of Glen Johnson’s pub player performance and Brad Jones but mostly because an unfit Joe Allen allowed their attackers to run onto Agger and Skrtel unmolested. This may be why three centre backs, Brendan’s preferred formation, works well against the bottom ten but fell apart when confronted by Ozil et al. Three centre backs AND a screen of a defensive midfielder should be good enough but if you’ve only got one specialist player in that role and a pretty slow bunch of defenders it’s not going to work all of the time. I’d like to think that the midfield is never too far from Brendan’s thoughts. Two decent signings could solve the problems of 2/3s of the pitch. We’ve been here before, of course. The missing piece of the jigsaw – the Paul Ince and the Harry Kewell – but all sides have that problem. Chelsea need a striker, United need a Dembele of their own and Arsenal need a forward to compliment Giroud. We’re not alone in this. It’s only City who are good all over the park.
But on the whole it’s been a tremendously enjoyable season and surprising to say the least. Some of our below par players have stepped up and bore the weight of the shirt. Redemption is a great thing in football. A poor player one week doesn’t always mean a poor player forever but it’s rare for a footballer to develop quickly enough to be worthy of a second chance with the same club. Look at Jon Flanagan – a career in microcosm. A promising debut at Arsenal a few years ago, a mistake at Sunderland and then an absolute shocker at Ewood Park. Sent back to the reserves with a ‘that’s a shame’ it seemed that it would be the last we’d hear of the Childwall Cafu. I was in the audience at the HJC London Rocks day when Neil gave us the team news for the Arsenal game. When he said the word ‘Flanagan’ many laughed and waited for him to reveal the real team. Even hearing his name mentioned in the list of subs would provoke the odd grumble but to have him start against a side we were neck and neck with at the top of the league. Brave, to say the least. You know the rest. He was excellent. A few weeks later he became the embodiment of the sheer romance of Liverpool FC. A glorious finish against Spurs, in off the underside of the bar too which is always great, and the type of celebration an eight year old gives after scoring his first ever goal. From hero to zero to hero. A rare path in this day and his age.
See also Raheem Sterling. There’s podcast evidence of my advocating his loan to a premiership club following his right wing back performance at Palace. Constantly shoved off the ball, outstripped by their winger and with some atrocious decision making it looked all up for him but sometimes a (little) man stands up. The turnaround has been incredible. It would be ridiculous to even drop him now, never mind show him the door. At Villa he was one of the few people I wasn’t roaring at. There’s a gem of a player in there and we’re gradually seeing it come through. Good on him. We all have our views and agendas but football fans also like being proved wrong.
Sadly the reverse of this maxim, the upswing in character and ability, is also the case. Some of our international players, seniors, have dipped significantly. Glen Johnson looks like a man who has only just come to terms with his own mortality. He’s second guessing himself, biting his lip in confusion and has generally been shite since he came back from injury. Gerrard too has dropped a few notches this season although it’s almost heretical to point it out. That’s not to say that Steven doesn’t have anything more to offer. Look at the Villa game (through your fingers, possibly). A terrible first half, culpable for both goals (jointly for the second but the manner in which he let a man run across him three yards out for the first was poor) but in the second half, in a position where he can hurt teams, he plays THAT pass which leads to the penalty. Not many players would be capable of that. There’s still a role for him here but he needs to be managed better, and braver, by Rodgers. This is not a league where we can experiment, particularly this season, and if Gerrard can only play an hour in an advanced position rather than ninety in a role which leads to the detriment of the team then we have to be cruel to be kind. There’s also his legacy to protect. No one wants to remember the slower, exhausted Steven Gerrard. Give the man the dignity he deserves. We’ll have to do without him one day so let’s use his incredible gifts in the best possible fashion.
The manager too has improved. He’s come out from behind the towers of self help books and become his own man. He’s still young, still learning and he’ll make mistakes. It’s important that he recognises them rather than stubbornly blunder through. That youth, that naïveté, does lead him to do some strange things at times. He’ll happily go on a decent run and then decide to record Be Here Now. He was guilty of it at Oldham and Southampton last year and he was guilty of it yesterday when he ceded acres of midfield for Villa’s three. It was Kenny’s seven centre backs at Highbury – curious and unnecessary. Still, he’s had an encouraging year.
The greatest thing about this season has been the joy of going to the game again. On the way home from the Norwich match I felt privileged to have seen Luis Suarez come up with that level of Playstation football. At the Cardiff game I found myself incapable of jumping around at his second, our third goal, and merely stood up mumbling the words ‘fucking hell’ in various pitches and times. I don’t know how he does it but to see him do it in the flesh and to see him laugh as if to make out that he doesn’t know either provides a special moment. Football is all about those times, those episodes of elation, confusion and seismic changes. Last week The Anfield Wrap played the radio commentary of Garcia’s Juventus goal and the feeling of ecstasy, jubilation and sense of ‘where’s all this going’ returned. To date that is the only goal that has left me on a different row at Anfield. One second I was in my seat, two minutes later. I was trying to remember which row I was on. I had absolutely no idea how I can for from one place to another. That’s what football’s about. Those moments.
It’s been a mad season and the Everton and Arsenal games might tell us if it’s been a worthwhile one. We can do some real damage there, either to the table or to ourselves. There’s not the slightest hint as to which way it’ll go. That’s the sort of year it’s been.
Great, isn’t it?