Barring the disappointment of Tuesday night, we’ve witnessed a mini-revival in form – or at the very least, results – from Liverpool over the last few weeks.
The Merseysiders have gone without loss in their last five fixtures across all competitions, including back-to-back Premier League wins against Stoke City and Leicester City, compared to four consecutive defeats prior. At the heart of this turnaround are two very unlikely heroes – Kolo Toure and Lucas Leiva.
Both came close to leaving Anfield this summer, the former linked with a move to Turkey and the latter almost securing a loan with Rafa Benitez’ Napoli before the transfer window slammed shut, but their importance to Liverpool under Brendan Rodgers is now reaching new heights.
It feels almost as if the Reds have been overcomplicating everything this season in search of rediscovering the natural, almost effortless attacking vigour that defined them last year. Rodgers has experimented with selections, formations, tactics and positions in an attempt to identify his strongest starting Xi, resulting in four different systems being utilised already this term, the abolition of Steven Gerrard’s quarterback role and Raheem Sterling being tested, largely unsuccessfully, as a centre-forward.
Combined with the seven signings made during the summer, none of which look truly settled at Anfield and, rather tellingly, only two of which started against Basel in midweek, it seems everybody on the Reds roster is giving Rodgers a bit of a headache, posing more questions than answers.
Perhaps that’s why he’s found sanctuary in Leiva and Toure over the last few weeks, starting the midfielder in Liverpool’s last five fixtures and the defender in their last four, having previously called upon them on just eight Premier League occasions combined.
Compared to the enigmatic Mario Balotelli, the lukewarm Adam Lallana, the out-of-sorts Steven Gerrard and the unsettled Dejan Lovren, Leiva and Toure are about as dependable and orthodox as it gets for Liverpool right now.
They may not be amongst the world’s elite in their respective positions, but both are consummate professionals and experienced footballers who, most importantly, know how and when to keep things simple. Rodgers knows exactly what to expect when he puts them in the team, which has become an absolute godsend amid the current campaign’s unwavering turbulence.
Take Leiva for example, an eternal unsung hero at Anfield. He lacks the industrial dynamism of Jordan Henderson or the aesthetic qualities of Steven Gerrard, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of central midfield he’s an undisputed master, blending a simplistic, tempo-setting passing game with raucous steel to dominate the pocket in front of the back four.
It’s no coincidence his first Premier League start since September came immediately following a 3-1 defeat to Crystal Palace where Liverpool lacked the fight, hunger and intensity of their London opposition.
In his four league appearances since, Leiva has averaged 3.7 tackles and 2.5 interceptions per match; the best rates in the entire Liverpool squad and superior to £30million-rated Southampton star Morgan Schneiderlin and Chelsea’s £24million monolith Nemanja Matic.
It doesn’t take an exceptional player to achieve this as the 27 year-old has proved – simply one that understands his role and is prepared to graft. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the rest of their midfield seem lost in personal transitions.
Likewise, Rodgers splashed out £20million on Dejan Lovren this summer, intoxicated by the Serbian international’s elegant, marauding defending. Lovren’s quality on the ball and his front-footed competence was certainly a factor, but it’s the greater experienced, greater disciplined Toure that’s quickly proving to be a far more suitable partner to Martin Skrtel.
Once again, the Ivory Coast international is doing nothing special; he doesn’t attempt to play out of the back; he doesn’t attempt to win the ball on the halfway line; he doesn’t take the kind of risks in possession Rodgers demands from his defenders. Rather, the 33 year-old relies upon his positioning to stifle attacks and, perhaps most importantly of all, knows how to hoof a ball straight into row z.
When Rodgers spent £110million this summer, he bought players that he hoped would take Liverpool to a new level, leaving the likes of Leiva and Toure behind. They represent the old, orthodox and regular Liverpool; the Anfield gaffer wanted something more ideologically divine.
But they’ve brought balance, tenacity and dependability to a starting Xi that, until a few weeks ago, had forgotten how to win football matches, too focused on aesthetics, style and ball-retention.
I don’t expect Leiva and Toure to be at Anfield this time next year or remain in the starting Xi for the rest of the season. But if there’s one thing the Reds boss should take take from their integral roles in his side’s recent revival, it’s that the best players often don’t make the best team.