For quite some time I’ve been referring to Stewart Downing as Stewart “no goals and no assists” Downing, and since breaking his Liverpool curse, I’ve referred to him as the footballer formerly known as Stewart “no goals and no assists” Downing. Perhaps my initial criticism was quite harsh considering the former England winger has had the pressure of a £20million transfer fee on his shoulders, which clearly affected his performances last season.
Under Brendan Rodgers however, Downing has been used predominantly on the right flank, which has now brought him two goals and five assists in all competitions, as well as at emergency left back. In many ways, Downing’s game has been slightly revamped, as it seems he’s far more useful to the rest of the Liverpool team when not being employed in his more natural role, which is rather symbolic of the type of changes the Rodgers regime has been trying to implement since taking the reins at Anfield in the summer.
The Reds now sit in seventh place in the Premier League, albeit with a game in hand, and for the first time this season look genuinely capable of mounting a late charge for fourth spot. So in a season where the club, Brendan Rodgers and the players have been often scrutinised, perhaps it’s time to give them some due praise. On their day, Liverpool are capable of holding any opponent to account, highlighted by the fact they’ve pulled off some impressive displays against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea this season.
It’s hard to determine whether their recent 5-0 rout of Swansea City was their own doing, or due to the seven first-team changes Michael Laudrup made for the fixture keeping the Capital One Cup Final in mind, which looks set to go down in Welsh footballing folklore. But either way, Rodgers men were composed, energetic, solid at the back and creative up front against the Swans, in a game which let the Reds show off their true abilities.
Perhaps even more important than the score line is the simple fact that the win came at Anfield. Brendan Rodgers has dramatically improved the side’s home form, and got his team to play exciting football in front of their own fans. This campaign’s seven home wins for Liverpool has already beaten the club’s dismal record of six wins at Anfield for the entirety of last season.
Off the pitch, Brendan Rodgers has quietly been getting on with a rather difficult job. The Northern Irishman has had to contend with a squad filled with has-beens clogging up the wage bill along with a large cohort of inexperienced youngsters that are yet to find a consistency to their game. The departure of Joe Cole in January has surely been a weight off the Anfield boss’ mind, and he’s even managed to bury the Andy Carroll issue at least until the summer.
And although I’m still very unconvinced over the signing of Fabio Borini, especially considering he’s spent most of the season injured and came with a £10million price tag, Rodgers’ other purchases have been relatively astute pieces of business. Daniel Sturridge, bought in January for £12million, has already had a positive effect on the first-team, adding some cutting edge to the Anfield attack, and furthermore, Philippe Coutinho has already shown a great deal of potential in the winger’s two cameo appearances for his new club.
Nuri Sahin’s six month loan didn’t work out, but the sheer fact that the deal was never permanent has proved to be a smart move, as many assumed in the summer that the Real Madrid man had enough quality to walk into the Liverpool starting XI. And while Joe Allen is still struggling to find his form, especially now that the old midfield partnership of Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard has been rekindled, the 22-year-old has an exceptional passing game, and clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
The differences in comparison to Kenny Dalglish’s second reign are slight, but they are certainly improvements. The new players brought in are youngsters who can positively contribute to the club’s long-term future, and even if some signings such as Samed Yesil and Oussama Assaidi don’t work out, they at least have some resale value. Compare these with some of the shockers in the transfer market that Damien Camolli oversaw, such as Jordan Henderson for £16million, Stewart Downing for £20million and Andy Carroll for £35million, and the improvement is clear to see.
But the word ‘slight’ is key. Although I believe Rodgers has taken the club in the right direction, there’s still a sense of three steps forward, two steps back. The club’s form is inconsistent to say the least, and their inability to be clinical with opportunities to score has led to the Reds dropping points that should have been secured during the match on a regular basis. For example, a result against West Brom last Monday should have been in the bag, but some inadequate defending from Daniel Agger, and a rare miss from the penalty spot by Steven Gerrard lost Liverpool a game which they should have come away with a point from at the very least. Similarly, on many occasions this season, Luis Suarez has missed out on chances to find the net in the opening half hour of Premier League fixtures, only for the rest of the team to slowly lose their grip on matches that have been there for the taking.
I do believe Liverpool will finish this year with their final league standing at least a place higher than last season. Whereas their league rivals West Brom and Swansea City have dipped in form during recent weeks, the Merseysiders appear to be geared up for a late charge for fourth place. I can’t see them making it into the Champions League over Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton, who have more quality and have performed more consistently, but the phrase “reach for the stars and you’ll hit the moon” comes to mind. Nevertheless, even if Rodgers doesn’t manage to better the club’s final league standing from the season previous, he’s certainly getting the Anfield house in order. His next test in the summer will be dealing with life without Jamie Carragher, and finding a solution that benefits the club regarding Andy Carroll.