During last season I wrote a piece about Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool vision falling into place, where in the last paragraph I said teams should begin to fear Liverpool once more. Just over a year on – on the back of a 3-0 win at Old Trafford, where Manchester United look distinctly average – this could not seem any more true. After a brilliant run of form since the turn of the year Liverpool haven’t looked back, powering their way to be amongst the contenders so late in the season – after their consecutive losses against Chelsea and Manchester City knocked them back slightly. History may be against them having never won a Premier League title, but Rodgers’ new approach could change that.
The two key games in deciding the Premier League title for Liverpool will be against Manchester City and Chelsea. Although these two teams temporarily knocked them down slightly earlier in the season, Liverpool fans should be more confident this time around as both games are at Anfield – where Liverpool have been superb all season. The Merseyside club boast the second best home record in the league, behind only Chelsea.
They’ve only dropped points in the early season loss to Southampton and in a 2-2 draw against Aston Villa earlier in the season. Since the draw against Aston Villa, Liverpool have won their last three home games, scoring 13 goals. They’ve conceded more than Rodgers would have wanted to after conceding three against former club Swansea, but the games of note are the two before this game.
Both Everton and Arsenal went to Anfield and got turned over, both by a margin of four goals. Beating the teams who are alongside Liverpool will give them a huge boost of confidence, but to beat them a margin of four goals? It’s an incredible boost which showed more in the game against Manchester United.
The two teams have had their roles reversed compared to when they’ve played each other in the last two seasons. Manchester United have taken 10 points from their last six games (including Liverpool) which isn’t a terrible amount, but a club of United’s magnitude and ambition would want a lot more. Whereas Liverpool are the form team of the Premier League. Winning four of their last six away games that confidence carried through against United. Liverpool started positively with Daniel Sturridge making dangerous runs, as Luis Suarez roamed and the midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling all brought energy from deep. In contrast, their rivals looked dull and predictable unable to break down Liverpool or match them for energy.
Liverpool are on fire, they have the best overall form in the Premier League, with the best home form and second best away form. However, in such big, decisive games Liverpool will need to call upon more than just form.
In title deciding games – although form is important – big emphasis is on the one-off performance and minor tweaks the side can make to take the points. The games against the fellow contenders can be likened to cup games where it’s about what you have to do on that specific day in order to get the points, which is another reason why Liverpool can be confident about the upcoming games against Chelsea and Manchester City – they have a tactically versatile team, with a tactically astute manager at the helm.
There’s been examples in the past but this season is the season in which Rodgers has truly shown his tactical intelligence on a big stage. His Liverpool side has lined up in many different shapes throughout the season, and nearly all have been successful.
They started the season with a typical 4-2-3-1 with Sturridge playing as the lone striker whilst Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva made up the double pivot. In this early season phase they also didn’t play with any natural wingers in a few games, instead opting for the flair of Philippe Coutinho to be used from the left and the discipline and energy of Jordan Henderson on the right. with Iago Aspas placed between the two. This formation was successful for Liverpool as they started the season with three 1-0 wins, but with star player Luis Suarez on the verge of coming back, where would he fit in?
This is when Liverpool made the switch to more of a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 formation, where they were able to occupy both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, whilst keeping balance. Having a fairly successful record using three at the back systems – playing five, winning three and drawing one – Liverpool were then dealt a blow after Lucas Leiva was injured in January, which is when they made the switch to 4-3-3 with Gerrard playing as the most defensive midfielder.
This 4-3-3 formation is the formation that helped Liverpool push themselves back into the title race. After Lucas was injured towards the end of January Liverpool have drawn one and won six. The system suits their play brilliantly. Gerrard is better in the more defensive role. In this role he can sit back and recycle possession, whilst being able to make penetrative passes from deep, but it’s his defensive play that’s more impressive.
Now he’s getting towards the final years of his career he doesn’t have the same kind of stamina and power he did when he was younger, so isn’t the best option for a more advanced midfield option as Liverpool want to implement a high-pressing game. This was seen in the Arsenal game at the Emirates I did a write-up on, where he was often caught out of position and allowed the Arsenal midfielders between lines. In his new role though he can sit back and read the game whilst the younger pair made up of Henderson, Allen or Coutinho can do the running and pressing ahead of him. Although their shape was slightly different, Gerrard played the same role in the win at Old Trafford, where he made the most interceptions for Liverpool. Now he can focus on being in the right place to make a block or interception, instead of worrying about pressing and running the midfield.
The 4-3-3 also suits the attacking trio of Sturridge, Suarez and Raheem Sterling. With Henderson and Allen behind them who are able to cover lots of ground, and Gerrard being disciplined in the deeper role, more freedom is given to the attacking players. This freedom allows them to move between lines and into channels and interchange with each other. This was evident against Arsenal as their movement into channels and intelligent runs tore apart the Arsenal high-line, to a point where they could have had even more than four at the half time mark.
Rodgers then went and made another change for the last two games against Southampton and Manchester United as he converted to a diamond, with Sterling playing behind Sturridge and Suarez. This change proved to be a great decision against United as it made the midfield more compact whilst Allen and Henderson could track the runs of the full-backs – who would provide the width as Juan Mata and Adnan Januzaj have a tendency to come inside for the ball more often. With United lining up with a 4-4-2 it also meant that once they made the midfield more compact and won the ball back, there was lots of space between the lines and in the channels for Suarez, Sterling and Sturridge to get into and receive the ball, putting Liverpool on the attack straight away.
What makes the variety of systems more impressive – Liverpool always stick to the same principles of play with every system. It’s easy to see a team play so many systems and say they’re being reactionary and won’t be able to sustain any success over long-term. However, that isn’t true in this case. No matter what system they play they always have similar passing patterns and pressing patterns, meaning the philosophy is always the same but in a different shape and maybe a tweak or two depending on the opposition.
Whether Liverpool win the title or not this season has been a great season for them, clear progress has been shown from last season and it seems the minimum they’ll achieve is a return to the Champions League. However, with them being the form team of the league, Anfield slowly becoming a fortress again and Rodgers being so tactically intelligent there’s nothing to say they won’t beat Chelsea and Manchester City at home, which would probably allow them to go on and win the title. Whatever happens, Liverpool fans should be happy regardless, especially as it seems to be one of the first steps in Rodgers’ plan, who seems to have an eye on the future.