With 57 points on the board and 70 goals scored, Liverpool are currently enjoying both their highest points total and most prolific scoring record after 27 matches in the Premier League.
Boasting a goal difference of +35, Liverpool currently find themselves fourth in the league, four points behind leaders Chelsea and six ahead of nearest challengers Tottenham Hotspur.
Safe to say, then, that this has been a league campaign that has exceeded almost all expectations going into the 2013/14 season.
While Liverpool’s focus should remain squarely on securing a return to the Champions League next season via a top-four spot come this May, there has been increasing talk of the Premier League title outright.
Manager Brendan Rodgers played down suggestions that his side could win the league this season after their thrilling 4-3 win over Swansea City last Sunday, according to the Mirror, but that hasn’t stopped the whispers in and around Anfield.
But how close are Liverpool to being a Premier League title-winning team? Let’s take a look at the Reds and evaluate their status and strength. Enjoy and have your say in the comments below.
Defence: Solidity and composure needed
Let’s start off with the defence, which is clearly Liverpool’s weakest link right now.
They may be the highest-scoring team in the Premier League so far this season but in terms of goals conceded they’re in a disappointing 10th place overall.
Swansea last Sunday was the fourth time the Reds have let in three goals in a match this season, while they have also committed an eye-watering 33 defensive mistakes this term, seven more than second-placed Arsenal.
Liverpool’s defensive situation has, of course, not been helped by the injuries to their defenders: Glen Johnson and Daniel Agger have just returned to first-team action, and Kolo Toure had to fill in on the left side of central defence.
Agger’s performance back in his favored starting role on Sunday was unconvincing enough for Rodgers to replace him with Toure around the hour mark, while Martin Skrtel’s habit of grappling inside the box finally caught up with him as he conceded a penalty to Wilfried Bony almost straight after half-time.
In Mamadou Sakho (currently injured, as is Jose Enrique), Rodgers seems to have found a solid long-term option for that left-sided centre-back slot, while Tiago Ilori’s performances on loan with Granada in La Liga are providing plenty of encouragement and excitement as a potential partner to Sakho.
Which leaves both full-back slots in need of strengthening. Even at full strength, a declining Glen Johnson and an inconsistent Jose Enrique are not title-winning caliber—and Jon Flanagan, enterprising and hardworking as he may be, most certainly doesn’t have the technical foundation to be a regular in a team challenging for Premier League honors.
Rodgers might also consider adding a right-sided centre-back this summer as he continues to groom Ilori for a first-team role.
Midfield: Steel and positioning required
At present, the Liverpool midfield is a patchwork quilt, featuring a makeshift holding midfielder who’s played off the striker in his peak years (because the starting defensive midfielder is injured), a box-to-box midfield runner who is maturing rapidly, and an increasingly deep-lying No. 10 whose impact and productivity can vary wildly between matches.
As a result, they appear to be impeccable and indestructible some weeks but lacking in quality and lethally vulnerable in others.
When the pressure is on and the pressing is turned up a notch, the midfield is capable of producing some truly scintillating (and from the opposition’s point of view, truly suffocating) performances: See the demolition jobs over Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and Arsenal.
But when their opponents also boast some steel, nerves, pace and pressing, things can turn sour very quickly for the Reds.
That’s why they have struggled against the likes of Southampton and Aston Villa this season, while Everton (at Goodison Park) and Swansea City have also posed trouble—simply by going at Liverpool with pace and with an intent to press all the space and time on the ball out of them.
It’s no surprise that two of Liverpool’s most convincing defeats this season came even when Lucas, the supposed specialist defensive midfielder, was in the team: Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in November, and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in December, both had too much quality, pace and attacking threat from the midfield.
Steven Gerrard’s reliability as the regista is also directly affected by his desire—and habit—to move up the pitch to stamp his influence and contribute to the attack, which he has made his trademark over the years in a Red shirt.
We considered Yann M’Vila in January when he was linked with a move to Anfield, per Jamie Sanderson at Metro. For a Liverpool side to boast a rounded midfield capable of dominating the league, Brendan Rodgers still needs a steely defensive presence in the middle of the park.
Attack: Already on the verge of greatness
Up front, though, Liverpool should be all set. (The assumption is, of course, that a Liverpool team chasing the title regularly should also be playing regularly in the Champions League, and thus Luis Suarez will still be wearing Red.)
Their forward line has carried the entire team for most of the season, bailing the defence and midfield out by outscoring their mistakes.
Luis Suarez, topping the Premier League scoring charts with 23 goals this season, is quickly being closed down in the rankings by strike partner Daniel Sturridge, who has already hit 18. Add the newfound confidence of Raheem Sterling, and Liverpool have almost a complete strikeforce capable of rotating across the frontline to devastating effect.
If Sterling continues to develop as rapidly as he has since coming back into the side this season, the SSS front three of the future will not only cause problems in the Premier League but pose plenty of headaches around Europe as well.
Verdict: Why not this season?
According to the Mirror‘s David Anderson, Brendan Rodgers has suggested that Liverpool are a year ahead of schedule in their quest to qualify for the Champions League.
Given the overall ability and depth of their squad, especially in comparison to the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal, Rodgers may well be right: His team may already be overachieving this season.
He will know that this squad, in any other Premier League season, would not be able to sustain a title challenge over a 38-match campaign, and that he will have to build strongly this summer to ensure that he does have a squad at his disposal that can do just that.
He will also need to continue ironing out the weaknesses and mistakes in his porous defence.
But why not a title challenge now? As things stand, with 11 matches left for the season, Liverpool are just four points off the top, and they arguably have a smoother and more balanced fixture list compared to their rivals.
We’ve looked at the medium to longer term, but this season, Liverpool are just a few less mistakes, a few strong performances against traditional bogey teams, and 11 more inspiring attacking displays from being a title-winning team.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.