After finishing 7th last season, not many would have bet on Liverpool FC to be at the top of the Premier League as recently as Christmas. Liverpool are now 4th, but there is no denying the progress the Reds have made this season.

 

ai???If you said to me at the beginning of the season that Rodgers would get Liverpool to the top of the league by Christmas I’d have said no chance.ai???

In explaining why he thought Brendan Rodgers was the manager of the season thus far, this statement by Gary Neville succinctly describes the progress Liverpool have made towards their bare minimum for the current campaign – getting into the top four and bringing Champions League football back to Anfield.

Liverpool

Liverpool supporters want Champions League football again

In recent years, 70 points or thereabouts has proved to be enough to finish in the top four and secure European football for the following season. While the competitive nature of the title race this season means that a few more points will eventually be required, it will be perfectly reasonable to suggest that Liverpool’s tally of 39 points from 20 games means that they are halfway there.

At this time last year, Liverpool were sitting pretty in 8th, 21 points behind Manchester United, 8 points away from the top four and behind even the now-managerless West Bromwich Albion. Despite the talk of defending champions Manchester United going through a transition as well as other teams not exactly being flawless throughout the current league campaign, here are some of the factors that have contributed to the progress that Liverpool have made thus far.

Luis Suarez

Liverpool came off the summer transfer window having endured a torrid time in retaining the services of their talisman Luis Suarez. With Real Madrid not responding to Suarez’s come-and-get-me pleas, Arsenal was the only club to place a bid for the Uruguay international. More than the interest from Premier League rivals, it was the noises emerging from the Suarez camp, as well as the misinterpretation of his contract by his agent Pere Guardiola that made it a rough summer for the Liverpool ownership and management.

Suarez

Suarez has combined very well with young players, especially Sterling (right)

The fact that Suarez was serving a ban for his snacking habits meant that he was not in the good books of every Liverpool supporter, while memories of downed tools by Fernando Torres caused apprehension among supporters. Fast forward to the New Year and every doubt has been nullified, every critic has been answered. Despite giving other contenders a head start of 5 games, Luis Suarez has scored more goals than any other player. In fact, he is now the fastest to score 20 goals in a season, beating the record of Kevin Phillips (20 from 21) in the 1999-00 season.

The impact of his performances goes beyond the goals. The focus is now solely on his football skills. He is heavily involved in general play, not just by racking up assists, but also by combining well with the younger players in the squad, most notably Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling. Meanwhile, since some referees still continue to judge Suarez on his past reputation, he has responded in kind by scoring from free kicks and set piece situations instead. The fact that Liverpool are still in the top four (at the time of writing) despite missing key players due to injury throughout the season is evidence enough that the Reds are not a one-man team, but Luis Suarez’s performances illustrate his importance going forward.

Improvement of existing players

At this point in time, out of the 14 players Brendan Rodgers and the “transfer committee” have signed ever since Rodgers joined Liverpool, only Simon Mignolet, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge are shoo-ins for the first XI when fit. The likes of Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure and Joe Allen usually step in whenever there is an injury, while the rest barely get a game (3 of the 14 players in question are no longer at the club).

Flanagan

Flanagan has been trusted by the manager, and performed well

In this regard, the step up from 7th to 4th (midway through the season) would not be possible. Luis Suarez, for one, did not have a great record under Kenny Dalglish, but scored 30 goals last season, and is now as prolific as he was at Ajax. Jordan Henderson often looked like a deer lost in a forest under Dalglish, but ever since he turned down a move to Fulham, he has continued to improve beyond recognition. Raheem Sterling, on one hand, tailed off signing his first contract on turning 18 – but his form suddenly began to improve after his 19th birthday. Jon Flanagan, on the other hand, has proved to be a success story for local Scousers looking to get into the first team in the future.

Additionally, Brendan Rodgers has often used two criteria in deciding who is involved for Liverpool on any given matchday – how the player performs in training, and whether he is in form or not. Going by this yardstick, Rodgers has rewarded Martin Skrtel with more playing time than any other defender this season, while Mamadou Sakho has kept Daniel Agger on the periphery. Rodgers even dropped Daniel Sturridge to the bench for the Merseyside derby, as he felt Sturridge’s injury prevented him from training well enough.

Brendan Rodgers growing into his role

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers entered Anfield with a reputation for a bright young manager who likes to play the game “the right way” and talked a good game. However, supporters also feared that he would be inflexible. While 2012-13 could be written off as a season of transition, the current season would be the real test of his managerial ability.

Rodgers

Being showing that he can be flexible when needed, Rodgers (right) has proved critics wrong

Rodgers has done a fairly good job in navigating the first half of the season. He has extracted enough out of his squad to cope with injuries (and suspensions) of the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Jose Enrique, Steven Gerrard and Daniel Agger, among others, at various stages of the season. In some cases, placing his trust on young players like Jon Flanagan has paid off. In other cases, he has deployed certain players in unfamiliar positions as stop-gap options from time to time. It has not always been perfect – Victor Moses went missing as a No 10, bringing on Brad Smith while chasing the game at Chelsea turned out to be a shocker, but Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling did just enough at right back whenever necessary.

Many supporters feared that Brendan Rodgers would ride the 4-3-3 to his demise. However, his deployment of the 3-5-2 and even a 4-4-2 in terms of player formations has shown that he can adapt according to the situation, as well as based on the players available. It is quite telling that Andre Villas-Boas, another manager with a similar reputation who joined Tottenham at the same time Rodgers joined Liverpool, was hailed for his tactical prowess – yet it was a loss to Liverpool that was his last day as manager.

Reward for the summer transfer window

Liverpool’s efforts during the summer transfer window were dominated by headlines about missed targets – they either preferred other clubs to Liverpool, used Liverpool interest to secure a new and improved contract, or changed clubs almost unnoticed. Furthermore, some of Liverpool’s summer signings have been underwhelming thus far – Iago Aspas has found the going tough in the Premier League, Luis Alberto and Tiago Ilori barely get a game, and loan signings Victor Moses and Aly Cissokho have disappointed supporters. But pre season is underrated, and what went relatively unnoticed is the benefits accrued from signing four players very early in the summer transfer window.

Liverpool

Signings like Sakho (above) added depth in defence

Pepe Reina may have been one of Liverpool’s finest goalkeepers, but his stay at Liverpool was conditional on interest coming in from Barcelona. Hence, the signing of Simon Mignolet proved to be a brave call indeed. On the other hand, Liverpool found, in Kolo Toure, an able replacement for the experience and leadership of Jamie Carragher – he featured prominently in pre-season and hit the ground running. His leadership and experience was crucial to Liverpool keeping three clean sheets at the start of the season.

Even though there is no doubt about Toure’s credentials, expecting him to start the majority of Liverpool’s games would have been foolhardy. Moreover, vice-captain Daniel Agger’s fitness record may have vastly improved over the last two seasons, but a freak accident in the gym is more than enough to get him on to the treatment table. For far too long, Liverpool have gone about trying to replace players, especially in defence. This time, however, there is at least one part of the pitch where Liverpool have strength in numbers.

Considering the raft of injuries that Liverpool players have suffered during the Christmas period, the spending spree on central defenders may not look so foolish in a few weeks time. One can only wonder what kind of an impact similar signings in central and attacking midfield during the current transfer window would have on Liverpool’s fortunes during the second half of the season.

Liverpool learning to win ugly as Anfield turns fortress once again

For a large part of Kenny Dalglish’s tenure, opponents would come to Anfield with a clear plan to frustrate Liverpool. Combine that with lack of creativity on Liverpool’s part, as well as many an opposition goalkeeper putting up the performance of a lifetime meant that Liverpool had a shockingly poor record at home under the Liverpool legend. Home form was also an issue under Rafa Benitez too, as Liverpool supporters who watched the 2008-09 title slip away from their sights thanks to the number of games drawn at home.

Home form is absolutely crucial to sustaining a challenge of any kind – whether it is for the title or for a place in the top four. In 2010-11, Manchester United won every single home game of the season, bar one. Manchester City clinched the 2011-12 title with a similar record at home. Under Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool have slowly but steadily turned their fortunes around, at least at home. They have won 9 out of 10 home games, as Anfield looks more of a fortress than it has been in years. It must be noted that none of the top 8 teams have visited Anfield, except Manchester United. But the games Liverpool have won at home this season have been the kind of games that would have been drawn or lost in recent years.

Liverpool squads in the recent past would not respond to a Steven Gerrard injury by thrashing Tottenham 5-0 away from home. Even if they did, there is a fair chance of past teams bottling what turned out to be a convincing 3-1 win over Cardiff City. Neither would they finish a gruelling Christmas schedule by defeating Hull City (a team that had won it’s previous game 6-0) with 6-7 first team players either missing due to injury or carrying one.

In short, Liverpool are winning games they would not normally win, based on recent years’ performances. Were this to continue over the second half of the season, the Reds should be able to do enough to return to the top four and bring Champions League football back to Anfield.

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