A cliché is like a Bon Jovi song. It’s on everyone’s lips because it strikes a chord, but its popularity becomes its own bane, leading to its demise. What we all forget, however, is that a cliché’s previously soaring popularity was due to its powers of description. But I digress. Liverpool’s season can be best described by a cliché: a season of two halves. But the first real problem with a cliché is now visible: it hides, papers over rather, the underlying essentials. It forms generalizations, labels them singularly, and sits back, proud, hiding the truth behind an alluring postulate.
Brendan Rodgers started the season by lowering expectations all around. The aim was to improve on the previous season, but any hopes to lead a title charge, or even make it to the coveted top four, had to wait. But Rodgers would be lying if he said that he didn’t harbor a secret desire to gatecrash into the top four, irrespective of the fact that it was his first season at Liverpool. That the club improved on its position from last season wouldn’t be any consolation. What was heartening was that Liverpool increased its points tally by nine – it’s highest since the disastrous 2009-10 season under Rafa Benitez.
Rodgers’ appointment as the new manager was the club’s third change in just over two years. Never in the history of the club had the manager been changed at such a rate. Rodgers inherited a squad high on wages, low on quality, and burdened by expectations arising from inflated transfer fees. Work was needed to be done quickly and decisively.
Rodgers has been frequently compared to David Brent, the character from the hit TV show The Office, played by the incredible Ricky Gervais. While the comparisons might be a tad harsh – as Rodgers is nowhere near as funny as Gervais – one can only praise Rodgers for sticking to his guns. Price tags were ignored, as the expensive Dalglish-Comolli recruits were told where they stood. The football had to be slick, non-ponderous, and continuous: a slightly more possession-based version of what the great Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s displayed.
The start to the season can only be described as disastrous. Barring a 5-2 away victory at Carrow Road, the first half a dozen games saw Liverpool languishing two points from the relegation zone. The defence leaked goals, the midfield kept the ball for the sake of it, and Suarez and co. were still allergic to converting chances. The full-backs kept finding themselves out of position, and rookie wingers like Raheem Sterling didn’t have the experience to cover up. All in all, the new “philosophy” was taking time to settle in, perfectly exemplified by Martin Skrtel’s back pass to Reina which allowed Carlos Tevez to equalize, when the Slovakian could have easily hoofed the ball into row Z.
But amidst the defensive hara-kiri and lack of correlation between possession and points, one could discern the foundations taking form. The full-backs increasingly pushed forward. Gerrard sat deeper than before, dictating play alongside the diminutive Allen. Up front, the fluidity between Suarez, Sterling and a random third player [Downing, Enrique, Suso – take your pick] allowed runs to be made from all angles. Pressing was relentless and intelligent. And Suarez was magnificent.
January could not have come quicker. The arrival of Daniel Sturridge reduced the burden on Suarez, and gave him much more freedom to play. However, it was Coutinho who truly liberated the Uruguayan: 13 goals in 20 matches prior to January, and ten in the next 13 games. The Brazilian took up the job of creating goals, and the two strikers gobbled them up.
It would not be too wrong to say that post-January, the football was exhilarating, with ceaseless pressure on goal, even a goal tally to match the efforts at times, and a clean sheet figure which seems to be getting back to normal. Sixty-one points is unremarkable and not good enough, but then, this season hasn’t been about being good enough.
A constant feature over the last few years had been the dropping of points against teams in the bottom half of the table. While there is some way to go to match the ruthlessness of Manchester United, the early indications are that the “smaller” teams will not be posing as many problems as they have done before. And that is the advantage of having a plan when there is a clearly laid out method of playing. You don’t need a Plan B when Plan A is good enough.
What has suffered though is the points return against the clubs in the top 10. While one can finish in the top four by winning games against the weaker teams, just three victories against clubs who finished above eleventh is not good enough by any standard. The only positive is that the performances were solid, with only individual errors turning deserved victories into draws, as was the case against Manchester City.
The Europa League campaign was one which showed exactly why UEFA has to take the competition more seriously rather than treating it like an inferior version of the Champions League. While the early fixtures were dominated by high-scoring games, the knockout round draws clearly flummoxed everyone. Even though Liverpool topped their group, their opponents were Zenit St. Petersburg – hardly an incentive to top your group. The group stage served nothing more than an opportunity for the youngsters to force their way into a first team place in the league, with the likes of Shelvey, Suso, Wisdom, Coates and Coady regularly starting. The inexperience showed in Moscow, where a two-goal deficit left too much to do for the Reds at Anfield in the second leg. But what a night it was, on par with Saint Etienne, Olympiakos and Chelsea in terms of performance and atmosphere.
The defence of the League Cup ended in the Fourth Round against Swansea, as did the FA Cup run, with League One side Oldham reading the last rites. However, the poor run in the cup competitions had one silver lining: the return of Jamie Carragher. Skrtel’s showing against Oldham – or the lack of it – led Rodgers to recalling the veteran into the starting eleven. Liverpool only lost three further games in all competitions over the next fifteen weeks.
To judge the team and Rodgers purely on this season would be folly. Deadwood had to be cleared [Fábio Aurélio, Alberto Aquilani, Charlie Adam, Joe Cole, Doni, Nathan Eccleston], experienced players left [Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodríguez, Craig Bellamy], key players were injured [Lucas, Fabio Borini, Martin Kelly], and the transfer window was mismanaged [Andy Carroll out while Clint Dempsey was allowed to move across London]. Youth players got a chance to make their case. The expensive flops of last regime were given an ultimatum, and they responded as professionals should.
Coutinho and Sturridge have made the difference, and look world-class. But considering how things have turned out for Nikica Jelavic and Papiss Demba Cissé, we should wait for the next season before making bold predictions.
Allen started well, only to flatter to deceive. It’s entirely possible that his hectic schedule caught up with him, having played in the Olympics in the summer. Let’s give the lad some time, shall we?
Assaidi’s purchase continues to baffle. A tricky winger with pace, he hasn’t been given a chance to do anything at all. What’s even more baffling is Rodgers’ decision to buy him, and not his Heerenveen team mate, Luciano Narsingh, who subsequently moved to PSV Eindhoven.
Where do you start with Borini? All that can be said is that he has made the treatment room his own playground.
Player of the Year: Luis Suarez. Forget the biting, the alleged diving, and the constant chatter with the refs. It’s a travesty that Bale won the awards and not El Pistolero. He scored thirty goals and eleven assists in 44 appearances in the toughest European league: what a genius! The club has to do everything in their power to keep him.
Here’s a compilation of Suarez’s goals from this season:
Young Player of the Year: It’s hard to look beyond Raheem Sterling. Rodgers put him into the deep end, and the teenager responded. What’s even more impressive was his willingness to run at defenders and get to the byline, and not move infield even when on his wrong foot.
Goal of the Season: There was only one clear winner. Luis Suarez picking out Enrique’s 70-yard long pass with his left shoulder while battling Coloccini, a touch with his right foot to round the onrushing Krul, and a third and final touch to pass the ball into the net. A master-class in control and strength.
Best Moment: There might have been bigger ones, but for sheer determination, the moment was Jordan Ibe’s 40-yard dash into his own half to dispossess Granero in the last match of the season. Seriously, the 17 year-old left-winger had no business being at the right back’s position. Watch this lad; an even better prospect than Sterling.
Best goal celebration: A tie between Jonjo Shelvey mocking his brother for wearing glasses and Fabio Borini’s hand-in-mouth.
Worst goal celebration: Daniel Sturridge and his dance moves. Awful.
Finally, there is just one question which remains unanswered at the end of the season: whose names did those three envelopes contain, Brendan?