As hard as it may be for Manchester United fans to accept, especially in the predicament they currently find themselves, but English football should appreciate a strong Liverpool. The club is a footballing institution, a global brand with a history matched by few. But finally, after years of obscurity and misdirection, Brendan Rodgers is guiding them back into the light.
Liverpool’s expulsion into the footballing wilderness following the shambolic last season of Rafa Benitez and a short tenure under Roy Hodgson left them stranded, lacking identity. A brief spell of promise under Kenny Dalglish came to little as they relinquished their sustained dominance over city rivals Everton.
From Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano came Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole. Next was the summer of Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing, with a bit of Andy Carroll thrown in between and Liverpool fans must have been holding their heads wondering where it all went wrong.
But from a team that has gone from relying, in part, on the industry and pluckiness of Downing, Adam, Carroll and the lovable yet hopelessly limited Dirk Kuyt has emerged a team with vim and vigour, spearheaded by a world-beating Luis Suarez and a rather handy bunch of disciples.
The Reds’ energetic style of football is marked by the fact that they broke the Premier League record for first-half goals in a season with 11 games remaining. A high tempo from the first whistle has become a trademark this season and had Premier League leaders Arsenal down 4-0 inside 20 minutes. Arsenal found themselves hounded tenaciously by Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling, allowing Liverpool to regain possession and make the transition quickly into dangerous areas of the field. By forcing Arsenal into errors Liverpool could exploit the space in front of Arsenal’s high back four, with two of these mistakes leading directly to goals.
Rodgers has also proven through the season that Liverpool can be flexible tactically. When Suarez returned from his early-season suspension Rodgers immediately adopted a 3-4-1-2 formation to accommodate both Suarez and Sturridge in central attacking roles. Over time, he has preferred to opt for a 4-3-3 with one or other of the two players adopting a wider role, especially against stronger opposition. But most recently away at Southampton, Rodgers opted for a diamond shape in midfield, presumably to keep tabs on the Lallana-Lambert-Rodriguez axis which has flourished throughout the season.
The players retain the confidence of a manager who knows exactly what he wants and expects from them. Following Liverpool’s first home game of the 2012-13 season, Rodgers refused to blame Martin Skrtel for what was quite simply his, and only his, mistake which led to Carlos Tevez’s late equaliser. He has provided the platform for youth team players to come in and perform. The increasingly impressive performances of Henderson and Sterling, the growing maturity of John Flanagan and the tactical improvements in Daniel Sturridge’s game are all tributes to the effect Rodgers has had on the club.
But what Rodgers, and the club’s owners, deserve most credit for is the way in which they stood firm over Luis Suarez. Following a season littered with controversy and a summer of open rebellion against the club both Rodgers and John W. Henry maintained Suarez would not be sold. And the whole team is reaping the benefits of this decision.
Suarez has just overtaken his goal tally from last season by notching his 24th of the season in just his 23rd appearance. Couple this with his league-leading 10 assists and he’s averaging an involvement in a goal every 61 minutes. With a further 18 clear-cut chances created so far this season Suarez leads the way in pretty much all attacking statistics. His increasing awareness of his role in the team and an improved level of selflessness have greatly contributed to this improvement. Percentage-wise Suarez now creates a clear-cut opportunity just over a quarter of the time he creates a chance.
Furthermore, Suarez’s shot conversion stats have increased from 17 to 22 per cent from last season. Take it back to the 2011-12 season and Suarez was only converting one in 11 chances. In a season where the Premier League has had a number of stand-out performers Luis Suarez stands head and shoulders above everybody else.
Liverpool is no longer a team that relies on the unplanned heroics Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres. Developed in a way to get the very most from one of the world’s foremost footballers, Brendan Rodgers is currently enjoying the fruits of the meticulous work put in on the training pitch. And English football should be thankful for it.