I FAIL to see it as being up for debate in any way, shape, or form but the current Liverpool side is not performing at anywhere near the level of the Liverpool side of the Autumn. This Liverpool side hasn’t quite got its edge, it isn’t attacking with the same fluency, to the eye it isn’t pressing with the same crushing intensity and the passing is not quite as crisp as it was.
However, for all this we still find ourselves sat in third place seven points off a Chelsea side who are putting in ridiculous levels of results. They’ve played 21 league games and got three points in 17 of them. Turn it in, eh? I don’t think we’ve truly been what we think we are supposed to be as a side since Watford in early November. There was an aberration at Middlesbrough last month, but for me I think we’re noticeably not quite as at it as we were.
We’ve given off the air of a team that’s been hanging in there for a while. A bizarre capitulation at Bournemouth, a sloppy draw with a truly dreadful West Ham side at Anfield and a leggy performance away at Sunderland has seen us drop a total of seven points. We led in all three games, we came away with two points. Not good enough. We’ve led in 18 of our 21 games this season. Imagine if we hadn’t conceded a single equaliser. We’d have 56 points. That would be fun. It’s also a really good indicator of what Chelsea are doing.
I’ve been saying for a while that all teams will drop points like that, and Chelsea are doing a cracking job of making this out to be nonsense. I can’t work them out – they’re like a machine, they’re unspectacular, not particularly entertaining to the neutral without being an affront to the concept of getting the ball down and playing football and it looks like they could just carry on like this to May and get to 90 points. It will be interesting to see what happens with Diego Costa, given that we’ve seen him be decisive so many times this season. He’s scored the winning goal five times, and that’s without talking about his other goals.
The thing a team needs at this time of year is to kick up their level. How do Chelsea do this? They’ve dropped two points since the end of September, what’s their obvious area for improvement that sees them move up a level? Could they get better? On the basis of what your eyes are telling you, yes. But, there is that little room for improvement in terms of results you’ve got to think that the most likely thing for them is a regression. Maybe that’s hope rather than realistic expectation, mind.
Watch Spurs at the minute and you’ll see a side that look like they’re in this for the long haul. They’ve clicked into gear, they’re strong defensively, they work incredibly hard, they’ve got one of the best finishers on the planet and they’ll be hungry after last year’s disappointment. If they can pick up a favourable result away at Manchester City on Saturday evening then we will all have to take them very seriously. They’re a good team, but it will be interesting to see what they do with the Europa League. They binned it off in the last 16 last year which I thought was bizarre, they’ve won one trophy since 1999, you can’t pick and choose like that when things have been that barren. How will they cope? Will they bother trying in Europe?
But again, how do they improve from now? Their football was mouth-watering on Saturday, but I just don’t see how they can get better. And that’s a compliment to them – they’re very good. They come to Anfield in three-and-a-half weeks. Saturday, 5.30pm kick-off. What will Anfield be like if Swansea, Chelsea and Hull elicit the maximum points?
Spurs may be playing well at the moment, but the injury to Jan Vertonghen will be something very difficult for them to overcome. Recently, they have looked to replicate the 3-4-3 that Chelsea have successfully used and it’s gone well for them. Without Vertonghen, playing that formation will be difficult as there is no blindingly obvious replacement on the left of the three. In that formation it’s probably the last person they would want to lose with the exception of Harry Kane. While we’re bringing important players back, Spurs are losing one.
City could obviously improve given the state they are in, but after Sunday’s dreadful performance it’s going to take something dramatic to turn it round and mount a serious challenge. Getting a goalkeeper who isn’t made of smoke would be a good start. It feels a little bit cruel on City that if Marc-Andre ter Stegen hadn’t got injured two-and-a-half years ago they wouldn’t have had Claudio Bravo inflicted on them – the journeyman who became Barca’s second choice keeper would have remained just that. Ah well, unlucky. At least they can watch him ping it round, who cares about stopping the ball?
Manchester United look too far back and then that leaves Arsenal. I could write something about Arsenal but what’s the point? They’ll somehow get themselves into the top four and their only hope of better is an immediate return of Santi Cazorla, who is a genius.
Then we arrive back at ourselves. There is a need to improve, anyone who has watched Liverpool over the last two months can see that, and I feel there is really good scope for improvement.
Watford on November 6 was the last time that Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana started a league game together. I simply can’t believe that the drop off in performance is not a coincidence. Not only is it not a coincidence, I view it as a genuine reason for encouragement for the final 17 games of the season.
We’ve been at our limit in the last month or so, unfortunate at a busy time and there’s been talk about us having a really thin squad due to the strength of our benches the last few weeks. I don’t really think that’s the case – we’ve had weak benches because a lot of players are injured at the same time. It’s really difficult to have a good bench while you’ve got five or six players unavailable. You’re on to players 23 and 24 in that situation. If you think our squad is light, have a look at who 23 and 24 are for our competitors. It’ll make you feel a little better about things.
If we look at how we can improve, how about being able to throw your best attacking set-up back together in February? Throw that in with us being able to bring our best centre-back in (eventually), and then mix that in with getting Jordan Henderson fully fit, it’s easy to see how we could improve.
Obviously, this isn’t to say that we will improve, but it’s a way we can improve. A way that’s easy to see, a way that would make sense. Bringing your best players back and knitting them together at the business end of the season is a huge advantage, an advantage that we have over others. Coutinho may only have played the best part of an hour in the last week, but it’s clear how much better we are with him, it’s clear we lack Mane’s pace, it’s clear that Firmino is at his best in the middle of the pitch. It’s also clear we’re at our best as a team when Lallana and Gini Wijnaldum are able to be the link between this triumvirate and Henderson, who also dictates things by moving the ball so quickly.
We haven’t had that for a long, long time. People will cry that you can’t be reliant on things like this – well you can, you can be reliant on your best players. That’s why they’re your best players. Imagine Chelsea were where they are now and could bring N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Costa back into their side. Or that Spurs could bring Moussa Dembele, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane back in. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about here. Game-changing footballers, coming back into the side to improve us. These are players that make a tangible difference to how Liverpool play. Wouldn’t it be nice if our results in the spring of 2017 bore some resemblance to the spring of 2014?
The FA Cup feels a nice distraction at the minute so I’m quite glad we’ve got some football to watch tonight. I suspect we might have it a little easier here as I don’t think Plymouth will decide to set up camp in their own penalty box at home. I want a predominantly young side but I wouldn’t be averse to Henderson and Coutinho being given the opportunity to sharpen up. Take them, sit them on the bench and give them half an hour.
It isn’t the league title we crave, but a fourth round tie at home to Wolves is a really good chance to be two games from Wembley and a potential trophy. Winning breeds winning, get yourself to the business end of things in contention often enough and you’ll win trophies.