With Liverpool having hit a rich vein of form as we head down the home straight in the league, with just ten games left to play, it presents an opportunity to take a closer look at how the side have progressed under latest boss Brendan Rodgers when compared to how the club performed under predecessor Kenny Dalglish – have they really moved on all that much?
It’s worth noting that under the club legend, Dalglish, that Liverpool finished a lowly eighth in the league last season and without a European campaign to contend with, they won the League Cup, beating Cardiff in the final and lost in the final of the FA Cup to Chelsea. More than anything, that sort of contradictory information sums up the inherent inconsistencies in the team at the moment, capable of beating anyone on their day, but unable to string a steady stream of results together.
What was clear last season, though, is that despite their Wembley triumph, the team’s form completely collapsed after the final against the Championship side in February and they lurched from one disappointing result after another in the league and by the end of his time at the helm, the gaps between the defence, midfield and attack were so large, the side either didn’t have a plan or they were simply not listening to the people trying to communicate their ideas, which is just as bad.
Nevertheless, when analysing Rodgers performance, it has to be said that they club are already out of every cup competition and they have been equally incapable of performing against better teams, at least domestically, becoming the last team in the entire top flight after Southampton to win a game against a top ten side. They have been ruthless against so-called lesser opposition, something Dalglish’s Liverpool outfit seriously struggled with, particularly at Anfield, with a pitiful home record hindering their progress, but what other factors come into the mix?
Firstly, both were backed significantly in the transfer market. Putting aside the January acquisitions when Dalglish took over mid-season after the sacking of Roy Hodgson of both Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, for it’s still not abundantly clear who made the final call on those deals, most likely Damien Comolli, when handed the reins in a permanent capacity the following summer, the Scot still spent approximately £56m on the likes of Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, Jose Enrique, Sebastian Coates and Craig Bellamy, who arrived on a free but on large wages.
By comparison, almost immediately upon taking the job, Rodgers was tasked with reducing the club’s hefty wage bill and shipping out the likes of Adam, Carroll, Bellamy, Cole, Kuyt and Rodriguez, but quietly, the club have started spending significant amounts on younger more unproven players again, to the tune of approximately £48m this season, with heavy January movement including the deals for both Daniel Sturridge and Coutinho.
When we boil it down to a net spend debate, and I know some Benitez acolytes out there are still dying for one, they both come in with broadly similar totals with Rodgers having spent around £41m and Dalglish £35m, so the perception that the Scot was handed more money is an incorrect one, because the likelihood of him being the man deciding on the Carroll and Suarez moves, while still a caretaker boss, is an unlikely scenario.
Where Rodgers has excelled is getting the best out of both Downing and Henderson in recent months, while restoring confidence in Jose Enrique. However, at the same time, when he first took over the job, he seemed to go out of his way to marginalise all of Dalglish’s big money signings in an attempt to stamp his own mark on the side and that kind of all or nothing approach has had to be reigned in, much to the benefit of the players involved and their overall performance and they are both now key players in the squad with healthy futures on Merseyside.
Prior to the Wigan game, Liverpool were going into the fixture on 39 points, the exact same total they had at this stage last season under Dalglish, but what is noticeable is that in their last few league wins, they have really racked up the goals, beating the Latics 4-0, Swansea 5-0, Norwich 5-0, Sunderland 3-0, QPR 3-0 and Fulham 4-0 since the festive period up until now. When this side gets going, they are a real force to be reckoned with and they’ve already scored 53 goals in the league, more than all of last season’s total of 47 and with 10 games still left to play.
That is more than the amount four title-winning teams at this stage of the campaign in the Premier League’s history ((Man Utd 92/93, 02/03 and 08/09, and Arsenal 97/98) and their best return since the 95/96 season. They have struck 30 goals in their last 11 games in the league and the message, in an attacking sense, is clearly getting across and some style is being added to the substance.
This time last year, Liverpool were seventh in the table and they still sit in seventh now, with an outside chance of a top four spot courtesy of a favourable fixture list to end the term, but they look likely to surpass the points tally of 52 with their games left, requiring only 10 points to top Dalglish’s return.
What is clear now, though, is that the glowing attacking report listed above is a direct consequence of Luis Suarez’s availability for an entire campaign, whereas he missed an eight-game stretch for racially abusing Patrice Evra last year and was never quite the same after that spell out. Rodgers on the other hand has been able to rely, perhaps too much at times, on the Uruguayan to pull his side out of a deep hole and he is currently the league’s top scorer with 21 goals, which is much-improved on last year’s 11.
Dalglish built his strength, with the help of Steve Clarke, on their defensive solidity and they kept 13 clean sheets last year, conceding 40 goals at an average of 0.96 per game, whereas Rodgers side have kept 11 clean sheets (the second-highest in the league in a poor year across the board), conceding 34 goals at an average of 1.2 per game. Defensive errors at the back, with the form and partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, while Pepe Reina continues to be inconsistent, have held the side back this year, especially against better quality opposition.
Slowly but surely Rodgers Liverpool side are adapting to his methods and really impressing their style of play on the opposition, but this more expansive approach has left them more open than compared to the rigid Dalglish system. The 40-year-old has benefited hugely from having a fully fit Suarez all season and the circumstances, plus the expectation game will all have helped a team in transition, issues Dalglish had to struggle with all year. Those sorts of distractions can drain a team and a manager, and the foundations of their success have been laid by the Scot, with only really Sturridge and Allen having any sort of impact from Rodgers signings so far, albeit with Coutinho looking a snip at half the price already.
When you consider all of the factors, Rodgers has certainly had an easier time of it than Dalglish ever did (even if the majority of it was self-inflicted), but the side simply looks a lot more potent and exciting to watch this season when compared to last and progress, despite the odd shock result (Aston Villa and West Brom defeats) has been steady. The club has a plan now and a system to suit it, which is more than could be said than it did last term and they look a far more balanced unit as a result. To answer the title question, the side are far from perfect now, with the added defensive headaches contributing to some ropey displays, but on the whole they look in far better shape than last season this time around.
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