Finally hitting their stride at Anfield?
Liverpool’s dominant and richly deserved 4-0 victory over an out-of-sorts Fulham side at Anfield at the weekend was followed up by a deeply disappointing 3-1 loss away at Stoke, so are Brendan Rodgers’ methods finally starting to take hold and translate into results and tangible progress out on the pitch, or are they still too far away to truly challenge the top four?
It’s been a difficult year both on and off the pitch for the club, with the crumbling fortress that is Anfield witnessing just six Premier League wins in 2012 and only 12 in total across two different managers, while the upheaval in terms of replacing Kenny Dalglish with Brendan Rodgers has seen a shift in transfer policy, a ruthless cutting of the wage bill and a change in the club’s style of play to a more possession-based game. While it hasn’t quite matched up to the turbulent times of the last few days of the Hicks and Gillett era, the club’s supporters will be hoping for an altogether quieter, more reserved 2013.
While Rodgers’ talk of a top two finish looked foolish even before the 3-1 humbling at the hands of Aston Villa on home soil this month, that result has very much been the exception rather than the rule of late given the team’s decent form which has seen them earn impressive wins on the road against West Ham and Udinese. There are initial signs that after a ropey start to the season, with profligacy in front of goal hampering the side once again and results simply not matching up to performances, that an alignment of the two is now starting to take place.
The side currently sit just eight points off fourth-placed Tottenham, but after being out-fought and out-thought during the 3-1 loss to Tony Pulis’ side at the Britannia Stadium on Boxing Day, it’s that sort of inconsistency from one game to another which is proving frustrating for many of the club’s fans.
Captain Steven Gerrard’s magnificent display at the heart of a midfield trio against the Cottagers perfectly encapsulated the team’s up and down, inconsistent nature so far under Rodgers. The 32-year-old has looked ill at ease and unsure of his role in the team’s 4-3-3 system up until this point, decidedly average and ineffective going forward; shackled further back while still coming to terms with his lack of drive.
However, on Saturday, Gerrard was at the hub of all of Liverpool’s best play, spraying sumptuous pass after pass out to either wing with unerring accuracy and timing his runs from deep to perfection, while also shielding his back four and keeping it simple when the occasion called for it. After six months, Rodgers’ methods appear to finally be breaking through into the players’ psyche and while there will be hiccups along the way, the side are certainly on the up along with their much-vaunted skipper’s form.
One of those hiccups came against Stoke, and while not as large as the Aston Villa defeat in terms of context, it will still have knocked the confidence of a young and relatively inexperienced squad. Despite taking the lead early on courtesy of a superbly taken Gerrard penalty, who was once again the team’s best player, they were pegged back almost straight away when Jonathan Walters equalised moments later – a trait that the team is becoming increasingly well-known for – conceding straight after they score and they appeared a touch lightweight, which when you come up against the Potters is at least understandable, but the result seemed inevitable after Kenywyne Jones nodded them ahead, with a distinct lack of fight on show.
The conditions under which the 39-year-old took over the reins at Anfield were not enviable ones; he has had to throw numerous youngsters into the mix ahead of schedule, he’s been continually hampered and undermined in the transfer market, all while having to reduce a hefty wage bill which has robbed him of the squad strength and depth required to stage an assault at both home and abroad like he has been tasked with this season.
Bumps in the road are commonplace, but along with Gerrard, the former Swansea manager deserves credit for instilling confidence in his troops and making them believe that their footballing ‘philosophy’ is one which will reap dividends further down the line. Knee-jerk reactions after every disappointing result or performance, like the ones after Aston Villa and Stoke, are simply part and parcel of being a big club going through a tough patch; a vocal minority given airtime, despite lacking any semblance of patience or rational thought to back up the bravado and shouty opinions.
This is a club in transition, one which is pursuing with a new possession-based style of play while planning for the future at the same time. For those supporters brought up on years of success, seemingly mollycoddled by glory, they’ll simply have to calm down for the time being, for anything more than a top eight finish this term will be seen as a step in the right direction and a halting of the decline of recent years.
Champions League football is the ultimate aim, and the likely arrivals of both Daniel Sturridge and Tom Ince in January will help add goals to a threadbare attack and provide depth over the coming months, even if a return to Europe’s elite competition will surely have to wait for the coming seasons. Put into perspective, the side is struggling for consistency and against physical opposition, but that will change the more the players get used to the way that their manager wants them to play.
For far too long the club has been in search of an identity, even resorting to one of decade’s past by returning to Dalglish in the first place, and while there are plenty of problems left to fix and issues to iron out, Liverpool finally look like they’ve found one that they see as relatable to the modern game; for a team increasingly comfortable in their own skin, while expectations need to be kept in check for the time being, inconsistency will be rife, but it’s important to keep the long-term objective in mind, despite the temptation to give in to the vocal knuckle-draggers that every club suffers with.