With exactly half the season gone, every opponent has been played once, how has Liverpool fared so far? Here is FF’s LFC half-term report.
Comparing Last Season’s Record
With 36 points from 19 games this season, Brendan Rodgers’ men have averaged 1.89 points per game thus far, slightly below the target of 2 points per game he set as the most likeliest target for Champions League qualification.
This seemingly below-par record should still be seen as a positive one though. Liverpool has already played five of last season’s top six away from home, and barring Manchester United at Old Trafford, the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton have to visit what is now fortress Anfield in the second half of the season. Rodgers will be confident his team can get a result against most of these ‘bigger’ teams when they come to Anfield.
Similarly though, the Reds will have tough away trips to seemingly ‘smaller’ clubs in the second half of the season. Southampton, who already beat Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield this season, at St. Mary’s will not be an easy game, but Liverpool will hope and should be confident they can better the 3-1 reverse last season.
Managerial changes at West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Fulham will most likely see revitalised sides fighting for their Premier League lives when the Reds visit these four respective grounds. The Britannia, a ground Liverpool have found difficult since Stoke’s promotion a few years ago, will definitely pose much problems for Rodgers, in particular set-pieces – once a Stoke speciality under Tony Pulis.
To end on a bright note though, Liverpool have already picked up 6 more points compared to last season’s corresponding fixtures. Although the Reds have less point against newly promoted sides compared to last season, Rodgers have improved against last season’s top six, managing two more points this season. They have also turned previously poor Anfield performance last season – a 2-0 hit-and-run loss to West Brom and 0-0 stalemates against Stoke and West Ham – into the full nine points. Much improvement has been made though much more can be made.
X players has certainly caught the eye for the way they have either, emerged out of the first-team shadows this season or how much they have improved since the last.
Most improved player of the season has to go to Jordan Henderson. Yes, there was much better showings last season. However, this season has seen a totally transformed Henderson. Admittedly, his goal tally is still stuck at that single, though key, solitary strike against Spurs at White Hart Lane, which is something he has to add to and work on. Still, Henderson has found the proper way to channel his boundless energy. Instead of chasing the ball like a headless chicken, Henderson improved his tactical play and learned how to properly press opposing players – with great intensity too. Recently, his forward runs have become a dangerous tool for Rodgers in supporting Luis Suarez in attack, while the sudden increase in his range of passing is difficult to miss too.
Next up on the list is Martin Skrtel. How would he have reacted when he first saw Kolo Toure sign at the start of the summer window to replace the retired Jamie Carragher, then on transfer deadline day, he saw young Portugese Tiago Ilori and French international Mamadou Sakho sign for the club? Most would have shirked and proceed to hide amongst the first-team shadows. Not Skrtel. He took full advantage of an injury to Toure before the Manchester United fixture, deputising and putting in such a commanding performance he has been first-choice ever since. Skrtel then saw Andre Wisdom – who many thought might get a chance in central defence with Carragher’s retirement – and subsequently the dropping of Daniel Agger. Even with all the chopping and changing of the back line by Rodgers, from different two-men combos to a whole new three-men back line, one thing has been kept constant: the presence of Skrtel. Still, he has to work hard on the way he defends set-pieces, but if Skrtel continues his upward trend and hard work, he could be a key player in Liverpool’s top 4 push for the second half of this season.
Lastly is Raheem Sterling. Bursting into the first-team last year against City at Anfield, and after his first goal against Reading, the second half of last season fizzled out for Sterling. He could not get into the squads early this season. But ever since he had stints at right wing-back during Rodgers’ experiment with the 3-5-2 system, Sterling finally earned his place back in the side, in his favoured role as well, on the right in Rodgers’ more accustomed 4-3-3. Whether it is his darting or diagonal runs in behind the defence or his taking on of his full-back, Sterling has immensely improved his game this season. Looking ever more fresh and with less responsibilities compared to last season, Sterling has improved his goal tally – now up to 3 – and has looked a greater threat. His link-up with Suarez and Philipp Coutinho has also been key to Liverpool’s success going forward this season.
Special mention has to go to Jon Flanagan as well. Making his first start in the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates, many thought he might fade out again. However, injury to Jose Enrique and the lack of form of loanee back-up Aly Cissokho saw Flanagan come in again in the Merseyside derby. He impressed immensely – personally my man-of-the-match at Everton – and continued to start the next few games and continued to impress. Looking very committed in the tackle, focus in the challenge and ever willing to go forward despite being on his weaker left foot, the mere dissatisfaction from the Liverpool fans of his absence for the recent City game is a testament to how important Flanagan has become for the first-team this season.
Failing the First Team
Number one culprit has been Iago Aspas. Much had hoped he would be for Liverpool what Michu was for Swansea last season – an unknown from La Liga who would take the Premier League by storm. That simply has not happened. Having started the first few games, Aspas looked so overawed and lightweight for the physical nature this league has to offer. With zero goals and no assists to his name so far, Aspas has not even been used by Rodgers as an alternative off the bench. Either due to a lack of trust on the part of Rodgers or lack of confidence from Aspas, the Spaniard has so far made no impact and this is why Liverpool fans want another striker to arrive in January. Quite simply, Aspas is not the reliable back-up for Suarez and Daniel Sturridge as Rodgers hoped he would be.
A more unlikely culprit probably is Glen Johnson. Starting the season as a key component of Liverpool’s machine, he looked the part early on, constantly overlapping and threatening down the right. When Johnson got injured, Liverpool seemed to lack some attacking drive, especially down that right hand side. Johnson’s return, most thought, would give Liverpool that balance and attacking verve back. That has simply not happened. Since Johnson’s return to the first-team, he has looked a pale of his old self, lacking any attacking threat and looking defensively vulnerable – something most thought he had vanquished from his game. The imminent return from injury of Flanagan and Enrique could finally see some pressure on Johnson for his first-team spot.
With the tough run of December fixtures finally out of the way, January will be the most significant of the next five months for Liverpool. Rodgers really needs to get close to the same kind of success he got in last January’s transfer window, when he brought in Coutinho and Sturridge. The squad has looked really thin this month after injuries to Steven Gerrard, Sturridge and Enrique forced the likes of Flanagan and Allen to step up. And then when Flanagan pulled his hamstring and Allen injured himself in the most recent defeat at Chelsea, Rodgers had to go for Agger at left-back and 19 year old left back Brad Smith in his attempts to get back into the game. Quite simply, Rodgers need to find another attacker to provide the kind of support he thought Aspas and Luis Alberto would provide when they signed last summer. He really needs another face in midfield as well. With Allen pulling up and Henderson looking bruised and tired, 16 year old Jordan Rossiter could be next to step up.
What is positive for Liverpool, though, is the imminent return of Gerrard in early January, with Enrique and Sturridge soon to see action during the same month. The return of Sturridge will be key, back fresh and feeling like a new signing, he will provide that other goal threat that Suarez has been shouldering all by himself in his absence. SAS could fire Liverpool back up the table once again.
A top 4 place is still achievable, 3rd even, but Rodgers will need to strengthen his squad, regroup, start again, and eventually improve his record against the top teams when they visit Anfield later this season.