IT’S a time of year when you naturally reflect on things; where you’ve been, where you’re heading, where you’re at.
This time last year, the Reds were tenth in the Premier League. With 18 games played, Liverpool, under the management of Brendan Rodgers, had won seven, drawn four and lost seven. Liverpool had conceded (24) more than they had scored (22).
A year on, with Rodgers sacked after the draw at Goodison Park in October and replaced by Jürgen Klopp, the Reds are…tenth in the Premier League, just two points better off than December 28, 2014 but still with the problem of conceding more goals in the league (22) than scoring them (21).
Then, from nine league games at Anfield, Liverpool had managed just three wins, drawing four, losing two and managing only nine goals, conceding eight.
Now, on home turf, the league record reads four wins, three draws and two defeats. Eleven goals have been scored, 11 goals have been conceded.
Essentially, halfway into a season, Liverpool for the second year running, are still trying to find out what they are all about. What they’re good at. What they can get better at. What is achievable.
On Boxing Day, Liverpool — on the back of a hiding at Watford when their collective bottle was questioned — dug in, knuckled down and ground out a result against league leaders Leicester City at Anfield.
It wasn’t all pretty, it wasn’t all clever. But in the context of the match before, it was enjoyable nevertheless. A restoration of pride and three points on the board against a team with a previously unblemished away record this season. It was a display of the much discussed “character” — a sign that these players can work, and keep working, even when the football on display isn’t anything to be troubling the ‘games we remember all our lives’ compilations.
We witnessed the Reds contesting for the ball early and often, from first whistle to final; Adam Lallana blocking clearances and forcing defenders to play balls out of play, Jordan Henderson chasing everything down defensively, sprinting to make himself an option in attacks and going and going to the last, Dejan Lovren winning his battles and keeping things simple.
Lallana even told Christian Benteke to “get in the fucking box” at one point. It wasn’t a day for complications. Just win. Perhaps that is what Jürgen Klopp meant by “easy football” — the type Liverpool didn’t play at Watford.
Much of what Liverpool tried against Leicester didn’t come off, but the point was Liverpool kept trying. It didn’t really feel that way at Watford. The Reds almost beat themselves at Vicarage Road.
So what now? Klopp’s press conference pre-Sunderland was an interesting watch, particularly when he spoke of “going there to win, not show how football should be”.
It’s that mentality that this Liverpool side needs right now. For a second year running, a Liverpool side has reached the halfway point in the season with question marks all over the pitch, from the goalkeeper through defence, into midfield and up front.
But, as a string of unfancied sides have shown this season, you can pick up points in the Premier League regardless. All the questions don’t need all the answers right away. The starting point is work for it. Fight for it. And eventually hope your quality shines through. The best player in the world can win a game with his quality. But won’t he win it more often if that quality is allied to an incessant hunt for the ball? Even in the face of tiring legs. Even in the face of a bad day at the office. Even in the face of opponents with impressive stats, more stars, better odds or whatever else the wider world tells you about them.
Liverpool lacked cohesion in their attacking on Saturday, and not for the first time. Divock Origi caused problems in his 37 minutes on the pitch but his finishing didn’t match his endeavour and the link up between him and Philippe Coutinho, and him and Roberto Firmino, suggested they are yet to understand each other’s games. The telepathy of Keegan and Toshack this was not but for now the effort and the energy will do.
Elsewhere, we saw Coutinho, Emre Can and Adam Lallana all take on shots when not well placed, the legacy of Liverpool’s problems in front of goal clearly a monkey on their backs.
But they kept going, kept working, kept running, and eventually, finally, moments of quality from Firmino and Benteke won the game.
It’s a theory as old as time. Match their work-rate first and foremost. Earn the right to play. There are questions about Liverpool’s quality that could and should be looked at during the transfer windows of January and the summer. But the working, the commitment, the fire to fight for every ball? Liverpool can do that now. Any player has that in his make up but some are more willing to dig deep than others. Have we got enough that lead by example at Liverpool?
This time last year, Liverpool were under the spotlight for the wrong reasons after a first half of the season that had included defeats to West Ham and Crystal Palace.
On Boxing Day, the Reds secured their first league win in four with a 1-0 win at Burnley that owed as much to battle and brawn as brilliance. Seven of the players involved then, were on the pitch at some point against Leicester.
From Turf Moor 2014, Liverpool went on an 11-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, winning nine games including victories over Spurs and Manchester City, a win at Sunderland and “revenge” against West Ham.
The wheels fell off in March after defeat to Manchester United and it was the beginning of the end of Rodgers from then on.
But so many of the players responsible for a purple patch that including the win at Burnley and the home draw with Arsenal that preceded it stretched to 13 matches (10 wins, three draws) unbeaten in the league remain at the club.
Questions over quality and strength in depth remain — and both could and should be addressed next month — but by digging in, working out a way to play to the strengths of the squad, and grafting in each and every game, the players we have are capable of more than we saw at Watford and Newcastle. We saw that against Leicester.
The major outs from the first team since this time last year are Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Glen Johnson. The big ins are Christian Benteke, Roberto Firmino and Nathaniel Clyne.
Clyne is a clear upgrade on Johnson, but Benteke and Firmino are yet to convince with regularity. The pair combined for the winner on Saturday. They need to do so more often. A beautiful partnership rivalling pairs of old seems unlikely to happen soon. But it doesn’t have to. Liverpool just need to win and they just need to contribute. It might not always be pretty but ugly is fine.
Klopp’s frustrations with the job were clear at times during his latest sit down with the media. He can only work on some things between games in what is a punishing schedule. He hasn’t had pre-season, there isn’t a winter break, so a sea-change in approach is unlikely. So let’s just win.
Liverpool have just won their first league game in four with a 1-0 win on Boxing Day after defeats to West Ham and Crystal Palace earlier in the season. Liverpool did that last year. An unbeaten run next? Liverpool did that last year. Liverpool can do it again. Starting at Sunderland.
Just win, Reds. Just win.
Pics: Propaganda-Photo–David Rawcliffe