On Liverpool’s part, it could’ve been a poetic end to the season on the final day. Steven Gerrard providing two set-piece assists to go clear in the Premier League assist charts, a goal from Daniel Agger on possibly his last-ever appearance for the Reds, and a goal for the understated Daniel Sturridge—all after Newcastle United took the lead through some dodgy Liverpool defending.
West Ham United—Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Joe Cole et al—just couldn’t play their supposed part against City on Sunday.
But while the conciliatory and congratulatory messages will be sent from the red half of Merseyside to the blue half of Manchester amid disappointment—“devastation,” Gerrard told Sky Sports (h/t Fox Sports)—at a lost chance to win a title, the overriding mood at Anfield after the final whistle on Sunday was a celebratory one.
For while City’s two goals in a clean sheet sealed their second title in three years, the Liverpool fans preferred to bask in the knowledge that their team had stormed their way back into the top four ahead of Brendan Rodgers’ schedule and preferred to acknowledge the brave but valiant efforts of their heroes.
And why not? It’s been an exciting campaign for Liverpool, and here are 10 things we learned from their 2013/14 Premier League season. Enjoy and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Attack Wins Games…
Having scored 101 goals in 38 league games this season—just one short of Manchester City’s haul—Liverpool have been one of English football’s great entertainers over the past 10 months.
Without taking any penalties and having missed his first five games of the season, Luis Suarez equaled the 38-game-season Premier League goal-scoring tally of 31, while Daniel Sturridge added 21 goals and Steven Gerrard 13.
The blitzing of Tottenham Hotspur (both home and away), Everton and Arsenal—all considered rivals at the start of the season—will be remembered for years to come, as the Reds hit three or more goals in a remarkable 21 out of their 38 games. The thrilling 11-game winning streak that rocketed Brendan Rodgers’ men to the top of the table with a few games to go was especially memorable.
Rodgers has instilled flexibility, directness and dynamism into his team, who are now capable of changing tactical formations from game to game and during matches. They can score goals from a variety of approaches—counterattacks, direct free kicks and other set pieces. The interchanging of his electric forward line has added to their aesthetic appeal, which has won them fans up and down the country and around the world.
From 71 goals last season to 101 this term—a 30-goal swing over a 38-game span—it has been a remarkable improvement in attacking form from by and large the same group of players, and Rodgers deserves as much credit as his charges.
Liverpool fan or not, this has been a season to savor.
…But Defence Wins Championships
Yet a simple comparison of goal difference between City and Liverpool shows everything about how the season has panned out: City, who scored just one more goal in total, finished with a goal difference of plus-65, compared with Liverpool’s plus-51.
Somehow it seemed fitting that Martin Skrtel’s own goal was Newcastle’s opener on Sunday—he is the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League with seven goals this season, yet his four own goals this season set a Premier League record.
Defence has proved to be Liverpool’s Achilles’ heel, and the main reason behind their failure to win the title.
Inevitable off days notwithstanding, there were fixtures and results that hinted at their defence being susceptible and potentially damaging to their cause. Hard-fought wins over Stoke City (5-3), Fulham (3-2), Swansea City (4-3) and Norwich City (3-2) always featured three goals or more scored, but required resolute defending to hold onto their slender lead.
So as much as it was anticlimactic from Liverpool’s point of view, the draw at Crystal Palace in the penultimate match of the season was actually arguably a long time coming, considering their weaknesses in defence and tendency to commit costly mistakes.
Liverpool finished the season just two points behind Manchester City. If they had been able to turn one loss into one win or two draws into two wins, they would’ve ended on top. Their attack is near-complete; it’s now the defence that needs major work.
A Mental Collapse Toward the End…
In this season’s title race, we saw it all from Steven Gerrard: the “crazy eyes” after his opener in the 4-0 rout over Everton, a shirt-flinging celebration after a last-gasp penalty winner over Fulham, a kiss for the camera after his second penalty at Manchester United and even emotional tears after the thrilling win over Manchester City.
And if those celebrations weren’t enough to confirm just how desperate Gerrard was to win his first-ever Premier League title, surely the team talk that he gave on the pitch after the City match did.
So it was a cruel twist of fate—and to some an inevitable turn of events—that Gerrard was the one who committed the fatal error to let Demba Ba through, allowing Chelsea an opening goal deep into first-half stoppage time and hand the impetus back to City.
From then on, we rarely saw the Reds’ nerves settle.
Instead of playing it patiently and build attacks through Suarez, Liverpool opted to cross aimlessly into the box against Chelsea’s bus-parked box while notching their highest tally of crosses in a single game over the course of the season. A draw would’ve done just fine.
Instead of holding a three-goal lead and maximizing the points return at Palace, Rodgers opted to take off Raheem Sterling, one of his best defensive players this season, and decided to leave his experienced defenders on the bench in a bid to rack up the goals. A simple three points, which they were on the way to achieving, would’ve done just fine.
An 11-match winning run was what started making the Kop dream—but conversely it was the belief and dreams that led them to a calamitous collapse in the crucial moment of the season. The five dropped points made the difference in the end.
…But a Clear Sign of Increasing Maturity
Eleven wins on the bounce is no mean feat, and in the context of the entire season—and considering the lack of squad depth and strength at Rodgers’ disposal—the Reds, by and large, carried and managed themselves well.
There were the nervy wins brought about by the hesitant defence and the prolific attack, and there were moments that showed Liverpool’s increasing maturity.
Holding onto a one-goal lead when the tide had turned and the momentum had shifted to their opponents was a sure sign of mental progress on the part of Rodgers’ men. In April when they held their nerve against relegation-fighting Norwich City after Philippe Coutinho’s second-half winner over Manchester City, Liverpool fans started to believe.
No two players can exhibit finer physical and mental development this season than the excellent Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson, who got their chances to impress and took them in their own hands beyond any reasonable belief.
As we consider the close-season anticlimax, a good context to keep in mind is that one of the league’s youngest squads repeatedly held their nerve to secure a second-placed finish.
It will be of some comfort that reported targets Adam Lallana and Steven Caulker are currently the club captains of their respective clubs (Southampton and Cardiff City). Leadership is being targeted.
“They Have Been the Most Wonderful Underdogs”…
The atmosphere has frequently been compared with that of Champions League nights at Anfield, and now the Reds finally have that to savor next season.
This title race even evoked memories of the miraculous Champions League final turnaround in Istanbul almost nine years ago—and Martin Tyler’s remark that the Reds had been the “most wonderful underdogs” over the course of the tournament that season surely applied to their Premier League title challenge this time around.
A young squad playing scintillating attacking football with the charismatic Rodgers and the elder statesman that is Gerrard helming the side—Liverpool’s title challenge was inconceivable but widely welcomed and supported.
For most of the season, they played with no fear and without shackles. Chelsea and Manchester City were the big spenders with big-name players and managers, while Arsenal’s fall from top of the league to fourth place, Everton’s top-four challenge, Tottenham Hotspur’s wild inconsistencies under Tim Sherwood and Manchester United’s spectacular demise captured all the headlines.
As they have proved over the years, especially in Europe under Rafael Benitez, Liverpool are at their most dangerous when the underdog tag is applied.
…But What Happens When the Pressure Is On?
To expect a thin squad and a poor bench to sustain a top performance level over the course of a season and outcompete world-class teams proved too much this season. While their lack of European football has been claimed by many to provide them with a sense of regularity, the fact that Liverpool didn’t even qualify for Europe last season says it all about their status as underdogs.
When the pressure was well and truly on and they were expected to see out the season in first place, they buckled.
Whether it was because of Gerrard’s unfortunate slip, Rodgers’ decision to go for the jugular against Chelsea when a draw would’ve done or the naivety that they could make up for the gigantic goal difference by continuing to pile forward with a three-goal lead against Crystal Palace, Liverpool seemed to make the wrong decisions at the wrong time.
And after providing a surprise element and a breath of fresh air this season, Liverpool will be considered favorites for the top four again next year, and another title challenge—especially in anticipation of their transfer activity this summer—has already been mooted.
It’s not just about managing expectations anymore; it’s about managing themselves so they can unlock their potential, but also get results over the line when they most need them.
Success Built on Experience and Quality…
Together, the No. 7 and No. 8 contributed 44 goals and 25 assists, over 68 per cent of Liverpool’s whopping total of 101 goals over the campaign—and that’s including Suarez’s five-game suspension at the start of the season and Gerrard’s midseason injury layoff.
When Liverpool fans look back in years to come, their likely conclusion will be that keeping Suarez away from the clutches of Arsenal in the summer of 2013 might just have proved their most pivotal decision in recent years.
And Rodgers moving Gerrard into a withdrawn playmaking role has unlocked the best out of the captain, possibly even extending his playing career.
Suarez has added even more to his arsenal (ha): Not only has he evolved into a fearsome finisher, but he has also become prolific at direct free kicks and also ranks second in the Premier League assist charts.
Likewise Gerrard, who has taken to his new position smoothly and has been able to unlock defences through his unerring through balls and long passes. His dead-ball deliveries have been a big component of Liverpool’s league-leading set-piece goal tally.
…But Exciting Glimpses Toward the Future
There is no need to elaborate on the maturation of Jordan Henderson, nor the meteoric rise of Raheem Sterling—likewise with the resurgence of Jon Flanagan, the consistency of Daniel Sturridge and the mercurial talent of Philippe Coutinho.
What has been made abundantly clear is that Rodgers, himself a young coach, has prized talent development and made youth a centerpiece of his Liverpool side. In taking such a young team to within a whisker of the Premier League title takes vision and guts and deserves credit.
That Henderson, Sterling and Sturridge have risen from pure potential to potentially starting alongside their club captain in Roy Hodgson’s England lineup in the World Cup this summer is a testament to their own hard work and Rodgers’ tutelage.
Add a few more quality players with at least a few top years ahead of them this summer, and Anfield could witness not just a new generation of blossoming talent, but a golden era in itself.
The possibilities are tantalizing.
Liverpool Face Their Most Pivotal Summer Transfer Window…
For the first time in a few years, the Reds have the Champions League and a title challenge to offer—with the money that comes on the back of such developments—and can use them to attract the players that will keep them there.
Too many transfer windows have come and gone without real progress. Even last summer, after almost six months of tantalizing attacking football following the excellent additions of Sturridge and Coutinho, the Anfield club wasted a good opportunity.
Eight players were signed, but only Simon Mignolet has managed to make himself a mainstay in Rodgers’ team. Pepe Reina left on loan to Napoli, leaving the Belgian as the only realistic choice as No. 1.
The excuse that has often been offered is that squad strengthening was the priority last summer, but a quick look at the Liverpool bench shows that even that objective was not realized.
They must not repeat the same mistakes again, not in the least because their rivals will no doubt be spending big to boost their own squads this summer.
…But the Belief Is Back
As we close out the season and look ahead to the World Cup—less so the inevitable circus that is the summer transfer window—we prefer not to focus on the possibility that this was perhaps Liverpool’s best shot at the title for many years to come.
We prefer not to focus on the calamitous slip that lost them their sure footing en route to winning a first-ever Premier League title.
Why focus on the negatives, when Liverpool have just finished ahead of schedule, not only in the Champions League places, but just two points short of the title outright?
While they have done so while breaking the three-digit mark in terms of goals scored, just one short from one of the most expensive squads in world sport? And with one of the youngest top-ranked teams in all of European football?
The anxiety and apprehension at how next season will pan out should come right as the Premier League resumes again in August—not now.
The anxiety and apprehension will only come about because Liverpool have made it possible to dream again anyway.
This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.