All told, it’s been an encouraging season for Brendan Rodgers’ men so far, and with the prolific Luis Suarez in their ranks, the Anfield side currently boast the second highest goal difference in England’s top flight with +23 (46 scored, 23 conceded).
Most Reds fans—indeed, probably including the Liverpool management and players—would have taken fourth in the league at the start of 2014 if it could’ve been offered to them at the start of the season, yet how do they stand for the rest of the season?
In the following 10 slides you’ll find a comprehensive half-term report on Liverpool’s season halfway into the 2013/14 Premier League campaign, where we’ll assess different aspects of the club’s performance thus far, before arriving at a prediction on how far the Reds can go this season.
Enjoy, and give us your take in the comments below.
Formation and Playing Style
A year on, his team roared to a perfect start to their Premier League campaign in a more familiar 4-2-3-1 formation, with Daniel Sturridge leading the line as lone striker in Luis Suarez’s continued absence due to suspension. Sturridge was to score his side’s first three goals of the season in three consecutive 1-0 wins.
Those three victories over Stoke City, Aston Villa and Manchester United were achieved in stark contrast to Rodgers’ slick possession-dominant style, as they reverted to defence first in the second halves and ground out the wins. A case of warming up to the new season, perhaps, but the Reds have only achieved three clean sheets in the league since then.
As Suarez returned in brilliant form, Rodgers encountered a selection dilemma, and eventually opted for a 3-5-2 to accommodate his free-scoring strikers and also take advantage of his strength in numbers in central defence.
Right when this surprise 3-5-2 formation was suggested as the Liverpool way of the future, Daniel Sturridge got injured, leading Rodgers to switch back to his favored 4-3-3, with Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling flanking Suarez as the central striker. This was the start of a scintillating personal campaign for Suarez that has seen the No. 7 score 20 goals in just 15 league games thus far, in the process becoming the fastest player to hit the 20-goal mark.
All this was achieved with a new withdrawn regista role for Steven Gerrard, who played alongside Lucas and provided a newly revitalized Jordan Henderson with the platform to charge forward. New signings Iago Aspas and Victor Moses both tried and failed the No. 10 role, while Coutinho has taken up a place on the left cutting in to support Suarez.
Gerrard’s relatively pedestrian contribution in the side could have been considered an antithesis to Rodgers’ all-action style, but his long balls and set-piece delivery in turn led to goals in every manner possible: Liverpool, having picked up a reputation for being weak defending set pieces, also became known for their goal-scoring prowess from free kicks and corners. (Luis Suarez’s deadly finishing from free kicks outside the box also contributed.)
When Gerrard himself was injured in the beginning of December and Joe Allen was fit enough to return to the starting XI, Liverpool began to transform into something more akin to a Rodgers staple. A midfield trio of Lucas, Henderson and Allen, while remaining in the 4-3-3 formation, pressed and harried opponents into losing possession, thereby sticking to Rodgers’ “death by football” mantra, and looks to be Liverpool’s image in the medium to long term, especially when Gerrard eventually calls time on his career.
In just six months at Anfield, we witnessed transformations and progress in Liverpool’s tactical setup and playing style while the points continued to be picked up. We’ll have more on each area of the field and Liverpool’s progress from last season in the coming slides.
We’ll cover most of the first-team players in the following few slides focusing on the Liverpool defence, midfield and attack.
Since his return against Manchester United early in the season, Skrtel has been a fixture in Brendan Rodgers’ starting XI, having made 18 appearances this season already with two goals to his name.
While he enjoyed a resurgence in form for a few months, in recent weeks he has committed a number of defensive errors—not least in the buildup to Samuel Eto’o’s winning goal against Chelsea on December 29—that have largely been glossed over. Questions will continue to arise of his blatant shirt-pulling in the box, as well as of the relative lack in vocal leadership and on-field organization when Skrtel is playing.
Alongside Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho have taken turns as Rodgers’ starting left-sided centre-back with mixed results, as Agger—despite having been awarded the vice-captaincy in the summer after Jamie Carragher’s retirement—hasn’t been able to find the consistency and form that previously made him an Anfield icon.
Sakho, on the other hand, established himself as first choice over Agger prior to his hamstring injury sustained at Stamford Bridge. In Sakho’s absence over the coming few weeks, however, Agger will have a chance to reestablish his place in the starting line-up. If he manages to sustain his performance against Hull City on New Year’s Day, Rodgers may well have more to think about when Sakho returns.
On the right flank, Glen Johnson has been ever-present, but sadly out of sorts at the moment, having put in a series of lethargic and uninspiring performances in recent weeks. A lack of genuine competition in the right-back slot hasn’t helped, but Rodgers will surely continue to look at Martin Kelly’s fitness and form to see when would be a good time to reintroduce him for some much needed competition to Johnson.
Jose Enrique had started to enjoy an improvement in his form at left-back before he was ruled out with a lengthy injury layoff in November. Jon Flanagan, a right-back by trade, came into the side after on-loan Aly Cissokho failed to assert himself, and the academy graduate grabbed the headlines with a standout performance in the Merseyside derby and an exciting first-ever senior goal in the 5-0 rout of Tottenham Hotspur. Cissokho’s decent display against Hull after Flanagan himself was injured will have been encouraging—and a relief.
Overall, Liverpool’s defensive record this season speaks for itself: A total of 23 goals conceded, just over a goal a game—with just six clean sheets—is not good enough, though an all-conquering strikeforce has rendered it a lesser concern for the time being.
Their proneness to concede from set pieces, as well as questioning positioning on counter-attacks—not helped by a gaping central midfield hole—will be two key defensive issues for Rodgers and his backroom team to iron out for the second half of the season.
Before we elaborate further, we must first recognize the work and rise of Jordan Henderson at Liverpool Football Club. Just a year ago, Henderson had the choice of continuing his career at Fulham or fighting for his career at Anfield. He picked the latter, and Rodgers has been impressed enough to give him almost a permanent starting spot in his first XI.
Put simply, Henderson has blossomed. There is a newfound confidence, a refreshing swagger in his play, while he has been able to put his incredible work rate to good use in pressuring and harrying his opponents.
His passing has been positive, and his running in the advanced midfield position has been direct and threatening. If he adds the finish and the final ball to his game, Liverpool fans may finally forgive his £16 million price tag.
Alongside Henderson, another midfielder to flourish recently is Joe Allen, who is enjoying a new lease of life in his “second stint” at Anfield, if we can call it that after a lengthy injury layoff following a mixed half-season last year.
Having returned to the line-up after Gerrard’s own injury, Allen has upped his game considerably following a painful miss at Goodison Park and has become an integral part of the dynamic, interchanging midfield now delighting fans week in, week out.
And like Henderson, Allen needs to work on his composure in front of goal. As the midfield unit progressively moves forward on each attack, every midfielder has a chance to break through and arrive in the box. They need to take their goal-scoring chances.
Further back, Steven Gerrard and Lucas have had mixed seasons thus far. A common criticism leveled at the Reds this season is that their midfield has the tendency to implode against quick and powerful opponents, as was evidenced against Southampton, Arsenal and Chelsea. Both Gerrard and Lucas do not have the legs or the positional awareness to hold the midfield, and thus the central areas are badly exposed, especially against counterattacks.
Gerrard has contributed three goals and six assists in his 16 Premier League appearances this season, which suggests that he still has a big part to play at his club, but may not be a good fit in the Liverpool blueprint going forward. Lucas, meanwhile, may find his importance diminished and first-team status affected if Rodgers does sign a defensive midfielder in January.
In the first half of the 2013/14 season, we’ve seen a few different identities, as we laid out in the first slide on formation and playing style. The changes and variances are all anchored in and affected by the midfield: Gerrard’s presence allows for a more varied approach but with more potential to be overwhelmed, while the recent Lucas-Allen-Henderson combination gives Liverpool a more relentless image.
It will be interesting to see when Rodgers decides to use which option when all of his charges are back to full fitness.
Suarez, having publicly flirted with an exit from the club in the summer, was forced to buckle down, and buckle down he has. Not only that: He’s improved on almost every aspect of his play and seemingly on his attitude as well. A devastating improvement on his finishing has seen him rocket towards the summit of the Premier League scoring charts, setting records along the way.
In addition to becoming one of the most feared strikers in the world, Suarez has also kept his hardworking style, which makes him Liverpool’s defender from the front and an important component of a relentless, pressing unit. It’s just as well that they managed to sign him on a new and improved contract extension in December.
But before Suarez came back with aplomb, Sturridge was the one carrying the Liverpool team. With nine goals and two assists in just 12 league games, Sturridge has enjoyed a fruitful season as well, carrying on his form from last season—just not as stellar and exhilarating as Suarez.
A rapidly maturing striker in his own right, Sturridge will likely return to first-team action in January, giving Rodgers a tactical dilemma and opponents all the more reason to fear the Reds.
But Liverpool fans had been looking forward to Sturridge’s return since the confirmation of his injury layoff, so why would it give Rodgers a dilemma? The answer lies in Raheem Sterling, who has come back into the first team and showed signs of continued development and growth with a series of exciting displays on the right of the frontline.
Sterling’s pace, trickery and direct running have caused opponents all sorts of problems since his own return to the first team, and his three goals in 15 appearances show that he is starting to add the final touch to his impressively all-rounded game, something that fellow attacker Philippe Coutinho also needs to work on.
It was always going to be hard for Coutinho to reprise his excellent first half-season at Anfield after signing for Liverpool last January, as opponents would have had six months to figure him out. With that said, while he has shown the vision, creativity and pace that were so threatening last season, he has yet to hit the same heights. A paltry sum of two goals and two assists this season sums up his difficulties, though he has largely been played on the left instead of in his favored No. 10 position.
With the league’s second most prolific scoring record, Liverpool have other areas than their forward line to worry about for the rest of the season. Their existing attacking setup will continue to deliver.
Without a doubt, Liverpool’s set piece mastery needs to be mentioned. For a team that struggles so regularly in defending set pieces, their prowess attacking form is surprising and quite extraordinary. Nonetheless, all three of their regular starting central defenders—and, of course, Suarez and Sturridge—have scored from set pieces, largely due to the world-class deliveries of Steven Gerrard.
The evolution in Liverpool’s approach play also deserves a mention here, as they have started to dominate games completely and blow away their opponents: Their “goals scored” column is so emphatic because they have really honed their craft going forward this season. They have now scored 87 goals in their past 38 league games, 10 more than their highest-scoring full season in the Premier League era.
A product—or perhaps the foundation—of such fearsome attacking play is their excellent home record this season. Anfield has well and truly regained its “Fortress” moniker, as the Reds have stormed to nine wins out of 10 at home this season, scoring 27 goals and conceding just six in the process. Their 27 points from a possible 30 at home this season is just behind Manchester City (30/30) and Chelsea (28/30).
Finally, we must devote some column space to the youngsters at Rodgers’ disposal: A young goalkeeper in Simon Mignolet and a future star in Mamadou Sakho; the pace, industry and massive improvement of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; and the undoubted quality in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. This is a squad whose full potential lies ahead of them and whose young age needs to be regarded as a strong asset.
Just as we started our coverage on Liverpool’s strengths with their set piece prowess, so we must highlight their vulnerability at defending set pieces and crosses into the box. The unconvincing defending and unsure positioning in such situations have caused panic to spread among supporters and manager alike in those situations—Rodgers had already outlined his concerns back in October, according to the Liverpool Echo.
We’ve touched on this in our slide on the midfield as well, but it bears repeating here: The gaps that open in the midfield area due to positional errors, pedestrian pace and a lack of specialist defensive midfielders can hurt Liverpool badly, especially on the counterattack.
Steven Gerrard’s return from injury may be a double-edged sword and must be managed carefully by Rodgers, who has seen a revolution in his midfield performances during the captain’s absence.
For a side that possesses such a fearsome scoring record and frontline, Liverpool could do with further improvement in their finishing across the squad. While this obviously doesn’t apply to Suarez and Sturridge, the rest of the team needs major work in this area.
Allen, Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling have all missed absolute sitters this season. It’s tempting to think where Liverpool would be at now, especially in terms of goal difference, had they scored at least some of them.
A prolific stretch that started in October and lasted all the way through December saw the Reds score 23 goals in just six home games, while a five-goal hammering of Tottenham on December 4 will go down as one of their best Premier League performances of all time.
It’s not for no reason that Liverpool finish round 20 in fourth place: They’ve simply outplayed opposition they’ve needed to beat and regained that useful habit of picking up points in winnable games on paper. An overall record of 12 wins, three draws and five losses in 20 games—including a few major refereeing controversies—is more than admirable.
So it is on those five losses that we will focus, but the surprising thing—and the silver lining—is that they can easily be remedied.
We’ve mentioned the Southampton and Arsenal losses in previous sections; hopefully further reinforcement to Liverpool’s midfield down the line will improve their record against teams strong in the middle of the park.
Lee Mason and Howard Webb’s officiating against Manchester City and Chelsea respectively drew widespread criticism from both Rodgers himself and the media at large. While Liverpool’s performance at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite up to scratch—again, the midfield was at issue—their excellent display at the Etihad Stadium should have yielded at least a point, but for the referee’s whistle.
Which leaves the defeat to Steve Bruce’s Hull City, at the KC Stadium on December 1, as perhaps the lone outlier. The simple explanation is that Bruce’s side enjoyed a fine result and Rodgers’ men had an off day, and it wouldn’t be too far off as Liverpool just didn’t turn up for the match. A disappointing day out for the Reds, which fortunately hasn’t been replicated for the remaining matches until this point.
Liverpool quite clearly need further strengthening to their ranks, starting from this January, but their results thus far have highlighted areas they need to reinforce. Targeting those improvement needs should be able to bring about improved results for the remaining 18 games.
Progress from Last Season
On New Year’s Day 2013, with 20 league games played, Liverpool found themselves in 10th place on just 28 points, with a goal difference of +5. A quick comparison to their current picture (fourth, 39 points, GD +23) shows just how far they’ve come in the past year.
Brendan Rodgers deserves massive credit for this turnaround in results, as does the transfer committee for securing two of Liverpool’s most exciting transfer signings in recent history last January in Coutinho and Sturridge, who have been instrumental in the Reds’ growth this calendar year.
Keeping Suarez in the summer was perhaps more important than any signing they would’ve been able to make, as he’s almost singlehandedly fired Liverpool to their lofty position this season, but even besides the impressive increase in goals scored, the maturity in their overall play—particularly in recent weeks with Rodgers’ blueprint midfield—has been evident.
No wonder they’re mulling a new contract extension for Rodgers himself (c/o Mirror).
Potential and Prediction for the Season
The key is to unlock his squad’s potential at the earliest opportunity possible, as this unpredictable and topsy-turvy 2013/14 Premier League season represents perhaps Liverpool’s best chance yet of getting back into the top four—perhaps their best chance in the coming years.
An impressive and encouraging first half of the season will need to be at least replicated for the next five months for them to have a shot at the Champions League places, but judging from the way they clicked after January last year, we can’t possibly put a limit on what they can achieve.
The key, then, is to have a productive January transfer window that will bring important new reinforcements to the squad capable of instantly upgrading the quality of the starting XI, which will be no easy task in itself.
20 games in, they’re just six points behind league leaders Arsenal, and just three games ago they entered Christmas Day on top of the tree. If they can build on their first-half successes and iron out their weaknesses, who knows how far Liverpool can go?
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.