Although few predicted it, the signs were there that Liverpool would display an improved performance in the 2013/2014 Premier League season.
From the end of last season and more poignantly, since the appointment of Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool have looked a much more polished and threatening outfit.
Abandoning the premature groundwork of Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish was an essential move. The departure of Andy Carroll and the introduction of players such as Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho are examples of the tactical direction of the club.
Rodgers brought his Swansea City method of possession based, “Guardiola-esque” football with him to Anfield, and while Guardiola himself has come under some criticism for the shortcomings of this system, Rodgers seems to have received nothing but positive reviews.
Barcelona and Bayern often draw harsh criticism as their possession-based system counts for little when goals are scarce. Critics were proved right and offered further examples of a faltering system as Real Madrid showed how a well organised defence and swift counter-attacking football prove possession-based dominance utterly useless. The 5-0 aggregate scoreline reflected just how useful long periods of possession are without results in the final third.
Despite this, the system clearly works on some level; Bayern have won the Bundesliga in record time and the performances up until their elimination in the Champions League have been impressive. Nevertheless, a potential lack of tactical variation from Guardiola has cost his team continental domination to go with their league title.
However unlike Bayern and Barcelona, Liverpool have had the advantage of being underestimated this season and it has been crucial for their success. Now that they are seen to be one of the more attackingly potent teams in the league the natural progression is that opposing teams will set up to defend and counter-attack. Their long periods of possession combined with their attacking profligacy has been met by teams sitting back and soaking up pressure and so far they have done well to break this down.
While Liverpool are certainly not at the level of Bayern Munich it is interesting to note that an increased awareness of their attacking prowess did not slow their title challenge.
This is helped to no end by the impressive level of incisive penetration at the end of long spells of possession. The much lauded SAS partnership of Sturridge and Suarez has given the side a combined 52 goals this season and their conversion rates and ability to score from half-chances has been cruelly clinical.
Rodgers has used an attractive passing game and topped it off with a cut-throat strike partnership. His variation between a 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond formation allows for control of the midfield with a finished product up-front. Impressive performances from midfielders such as Henderson and Gerrard have allowed Rodgers to operate without sacrificing recognised strikers as Barcelona and Bayern are often guilty of. Their relentless style of early domination and deadly chance conversion have seen them blow away teams while fans are still taking their seats.
Liverpool will be playing Champions League football next season and no one can claim that this is undeserved. However, Rodgers will have to work hard with his current roster while adding some quality and depth to the squad. In a recent interview with Sky Sports he alluded to his preference for players who will fit into the developing ethos at Anfield, both mentally and stylistically.
“Our criteria that we look for is players with strong technique and football intelligence. They need to mentally have the attitude and the capacity to learn and they have to be so hungry to fight for every ball on every day in training and in the game.
“You’ll get some players who are specialists and who need to play in particular positions, but if we can get players in who are multi-functional, and can play in different roles and are multidimensional in their work, it sets us up and gives me more options as a coach.”
Watching Liverpool play it isn’t hard to recognise these characteristics as flexibility and a willingness to work for the team is evident almost universally throughout the current squad. Unquestionably Brendan will have to recruit wisely if next season is to prove successful on any front.
The rigours of the modern game are most clear when teams are competing both domestically and continentally, a fact Rodgers will be aware of. Liverpool’s most creative players Gerrard and Coutinho, will be playing much more football and the former will be unable to play 2-3 games a week while playing in the twilight of his career.
The Liverpool boss will be aware of the necessity for creative depth and will certainly be in the market for playmakers as reported bids for the World Cup-bound Adam Lallana suggest. While the importance of creative depth is crucial, it cannot be understated how flimsy Liverpool’s defence has been this year and forays into the market to plug their defensive holes are a certainty.
Liverpool have been operating under the assumption that they can out-score any opposition however this is doomed to fail when a tired squad faces a third game of the week against the likes of Real Madrid and PSG.
For the mean-time it will be interesting to see how Rodgers acts in the transfer window. The Northern Irishman is somewhat of a shrewd investor and Iago Aspas aside, his actions in the transfer market have been solid. He will be very aware of the players who will fit into his style of play and with their acquisitions and some defensive bolstering Liverpool could really threaten both domestically and continentally next season.
However, it will be interesting to see how Liverpool will fare with the extra European games, without any underestimation, and with what fans hope will be a new look back four.
Jack Cahill, Pundit Arena.