Is It Now or Never for ‘Brendan And The Boys’? Liverpool FC’s Title Challenge
Talk of a league title returning to Anfield on the 11th of May, after a twenty four year wait, would not have been taken seriously even amongst the most optimistic reds of the Merseyside as the season kicked off on the 17th of August at home to Stoke. However with only four games to go Brendan Roger’s Liverpool have found themselves security company Liverpool two points clear at the top of the table and, after Manchester City’s slip up during the week, must be considered favourites to go all the way. With an inspirational Steven Gerrard demonstrating his prowess in his new Quarter Back position, a manager with blind belief in his players’ potential and above all a strike partnership terrorising the country’s defences with frightening ease, not many would claim otherwise.
Is this the start of a new era at Anfield resembling that of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley in the 70s and 80s? Are Manchester United in for a long winter in the face of their bitter rivals taking over as England’s Top Dog? These prospects may excite the members of the famous Kop but are in direct confrontation with another school of thought, one questioning the Merseyside club’s realistic chances of reproducing such a credible title challenge in the near future. Is this not just a one off? A quick reminder of Anfield’s legendary atmosphere? A last cry of honour from their formidable and yet aging Captain before the inevitable hanging up of the boots? Both sides of the story shall be discussed.
Brendan Rodgers has spent the better part of the season trying to find his starting back four. It seems only two players have succeeded in demonstrating their ability to fend off any potential threat to Minglolet’s closely guarded net, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson in central defence and at right back respectively. With Jose Enrique suffering of a knee injury and not featuring since the Red’s away win at Fulham in November, the Liverpool boss has struggled to find a suitable replacement. Indeed, Ally Cissokho, Daniel Agger, Mamadou Sakho, Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan have all been used to fill in for the Spaniard with perhaps only the latter showing why he deserves to be in contention for the position as of late. The other position yet to be secured is the centre half position alongside the International Slovak, with on top of Agger and Sakho already mentioned Kolo Toure has also attempted to prove his worth at the heart of defence. Yet with only 4 games to go Rodger’s has still to decide, with Toure and Agger both starting 15 and Sakho starting 14 it seems this problem may go unsolved. That the amount of league goals conceded is only 1 less than in the entirety of last season’s, a season in which they finished 7th, despite there remaining 4 games, is mainly due to such an instability. On top of this the number of clean sheets preserved by the Anfield XI has declined from 16 to potentially 14 and this only if they to no longer concede a single goal, a prospect that seems rather unlikely in view of the recent trend. This situation can be likened to one of the factors that lead to collapse of Manchester City’s title hopes this season. With Manuel Pellegrini lacking a suitable partner for, arguably the world’s best defender, Vincent Kompany.
In front of the forever alternating back four is the English pair composed of promising Jordan Henderson and emblematic Steven Gerrard. The Merseyside boy through and through silenced the rumours that he was playing the season too many and has adapted to his new ‘Quarter back’ position remarkably well. Alongside the indefatigable Henderson, Gerrard has dictated the Liverpool play and contributed highly to his side’s recent success with 13 goals to his name, more than he had in the league since the 08-09 campaign in which they finished runners up with a club record of 86 points. However, 10 of these realisations came from the conversion of spot kicks awarded to the Merseyside club. Gerrard has also been subject to a highly increased amount of protection from his manager with the latter substituting the club captain before the final whistle on no less than 6 occasions in contrast to the 1 from the previous year. With a passing game still equal to those dubbed as the best in Europe his influence on the game is incontestable, but with his new role on the pitch requiring a more defensive approach Gerard’s advancing years do and will undoubtedly pose a problem in the near future. With a tackle success rate declining in and the illustration of the England International’s difficulty to cope when presented with a more agile and rapid opponent when he brought down Oxlade Chamberlain at Anfield in the 5-1 victory over Arsenal, it is fair to say he is not getting any younger. As much as it would not be fair to simply show Gerrard the door, Brendan Rodgers may wish to begin the search for a new ‘Quarter Back’ if he aims to upkeep his side’s level of performance in the league next year.
The outcome of this year’s title race is still very much to play for with Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea only 2 points behind and still yet to visit Anfield, in what may be a title deciding fixture, and with Manchester City six points behind with a game in hand. Though it is Liverpool that posses the strongest hand in the run in and a significant psychological advantage of being on top. It remains important to remind oneself that this current campaign has represented for both Chelsea and Manchester City a season of adaptation with both clubs bringing in new managers with very different styles to their predecessors, despite this being Mourinho’s second spell at Stamford Bridge. As demonstrated by Liverpool themselves a season or two is sometimes required in order for a manager to have a noticeable impact upon their teams, something often forgotten by impatient chairmen to easy to hit the eject button when goings get tough, a situation Brendan Rodgers has the luxury of not experiencing. It would therefore seem that it is in fact during next season that the true force of both Chelsea and Manchester City shall be put to test. On top of this the two other title contenders have, unlike Liverpool, been competing on more than one stage with halfway through the season papers talking of a potential historic quadruple for Manchester City and Chelsea still in contention for a place in the final of the Champions League as we speak. Having played a significant amount of games less than both the blues from London and for Manchester it would only seem logical that the boys from Anfield find themselves where they are at such a crucial stage. The question remains whether they will be able to repeat such a feat once Mourinho and Pellegrini have had a certain amount of time to shape their squads as they wish and Rodgers has to deal with European football on top of domestic aspirations, where due to an increase in expectations there will also be an increased level of pressure.