How Liverpool's form since January has turned their Premier League season around
Momentum is crucial in football. If a team is in a rich vein of form, they come into each game as favourites to secure victory as winning breeds confidence. If a side puts a string of positive results together, they can go from relegation fodder to European contenders, depending on the competitiveness of the league.
Take Borussia Dortmund, for example. Prior to the winter break, they were mired in the Bundesliga’s automatic relegation spots. However, an unbeaten run of five games leaves them as close to the European places as it does the foot of Germany’s top tier.
As admirably as Dortmund have performed of late, their exploits are currently overshadowed by that of Liverpool. After a rocky start to the season, the Reds are now well placed to secure a top-four finish, a near-unimaginable possibility at the tail end of 2014.
Manager Brendan Rodgers has worked wonders at Anfield to turn their fortunes around, so much so that some suggest they could even leapfrog champions Manchester City into second provided the Reds maintain their form over the next 10 league games.
Rodgers deserves ample credit for the way he has revived Liverpool’s season. The switch to a 3-4-3 formation is currently reaping the rewards, with those who underwhelmed in the first half of the campaign now pulling their weight. The Reds’ resurgence, though, should not come as a surprise to the steadfast Liverpool aficionado.
In his three seasons in charge of Liverpool, Rodgers has overseen just four defeats in 46 Premier League matches between New Year’s Day and the end of the season, three of which came in his debut season at the helm. Since the turn of the year, the Reds have taken 23 points of a possible 27.
A similar upturn in fortunes has occurred over the last 3 seasons, with their points per game return improving in the 2012/13 campaign (1.47 up to 2.50) and the 2013/14 season (1.89 to 2.53). As one might expect, this is also the case this term (1.47 up to 2.50). The most notable improvement has been in attack.
In each season under Rodgers, the number of goals scored per game increases in the New Year. The Reds boss was able to call on Luis Suarez for his first two seasons at the Anfield helm, which naturally boosted Liverpool’s chances in front of goal given the Uruguayan’s striking ability.
This campaign, however, the Northern Irishman has had to make do without Suarez, while Daniel Sturridge has also endured his injury problems. The change to a 3-4-3 formation has helped counter the absence of the respective duo, with both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho profiting from the new system in place.
Not only that, but Rodgers’ handling of his quicker attackers is also once again paying dividends, which aids these key personnel and the club.
“Some players are very fast, they will have a second day, active recovery, whereas other players can work on that second day. When you’re a type of player like Raheem Sterling or Daniel Sturridge, you need to recover them differently,” Rodgers said back in September in the wake of Sturridge’s thigh injury sustained on international duty.
He knows how to get the best out of his quicker attackers and Liverpool, as a result, thrive at the business end of the season.
Coutinho and Sterling, among others, benefit from Rodgers’ training methods and his approach clearly helps the Reds, especially at the turn of the year. Rather than suffering from burn out, these players flourish, which in turn helps Liverpool maintain their momentum when needs must.
In the first half of the current campaign, Rodgers’ side underwhelmed compared to their exploits during the second half of last season, which saw them finish just 2 points behind title winners Manchester City.
A dip in form at the wrong time cost them their first ever Premier League title, but their performance levels were kept at a very high standard as Rodgers handled his attackers with care. That the forward players remained fresh for the final sprint to the finish line is highlighted in the number of times possession is won in the final third in the second half of the season compared to the first.
In the last two terms, the number of times Liverpool have won possession in the attacking third has risen from 3.5 to 4.2 in the 2013/14 season and from 3.1 to 4.1 this campaign.
The improved fitness levels of his attacking players means Liverpool have the upper hand against Premier League opposition when the going gets tough. As a result, they can put more pressure of defences, in the process win the ball back more frequently, thus present the team with more clear cut goalscoring opportunities when the backline are caught unawares.
This would explain why the number of shots per game has risen marginally, while the average number of shots on target per match has noticably increased.
Liverpool, therefore, are clearly better equipped than a number of their league rivals at this stage of the season, with Rodgers earning praise as a result. In the race for a top-4 finish, the Reds are better placed than the likes of Tottenham, Manchester United and Southampton in a bid to return to Europe’s elite competition.
The FA Cup draw with Blackburn Rovers last weekend may have added an extra match to their fixture list, but given Liverpool’s form from New Year’s Day until the end of the season under Rodgers, chances are this will not dent their hopes in their quest to secure a Champions League place.