One swallow doesn’t make a summer, one bacon butty doesn’t constitute a visit to 10 Downing Street and one win doesn’t mean the Reds are back and everything is fine and dandy.
It’s important to celebrate the little things, though, and a win is a win is a win is a win. There will always come the accusation that it was ‘only Aston Villa’, but you can only beat what is in front of you and after the result against Carlisle even that is far from a given.
From the return of Daniel Sturridge to the re-appearance of defensive problems that never really went away, there are a number of talking points from the game against the Villa. We’ll take a look at them each individually and you should feel free to let us know if you disagree, if we’ve missed anything glaringly obvious out or if you just want to say what what a great job we’ve done.
Anfield Can Play Its Part
In some senses, something quite strange happened on Saturday. The aftermath of the game against Carlisle United suggested that Rodgers’ goose was cooked, that the league was dead and buried as far as Liverpool’s concerned and that everyone associated with the Red half of Merseyside is just waiting for the inevitable to happen.
The Kop might have been forgiven, then, for not getting themselves up for the game against Aston Villa. Liverpool haven’t beaten the Midlands club in the league at their home ground since 2011, after all, so there’s only so much hope you can carry on your shoulders at any one time.
Against Carlisle the singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone sounded more like a funereal hymn than a club’s chest beating anthem, but against Villa it had re-discovered some of its more defiant edge. The feeling around Anfield seemed to be that Rodgers is done, but that doesn’t mean that the players don’t deserve a bit of support and encouragement.
The anthem rolled down the Kop and on to the pitch, inspiring the players to hit Aston Villa hard from the outset. In a way there’s a quiet amusement to the fact that the player who responded the quickest to this show of defiance by his new club was one who counts the opposition as one of his old ones. James Milner struck from the edge of the box after just 55 seconds and not only gave Liverpool fans something to sing about it but also reminded them of what it was like in 2013 – 2014 when scoring in the early stages of a game was a matter of routine.
Gary McCallister, Liverpool’s assistant manager, suggested last week that the players need to lift the fans, not the other way around. There’s an extent to which that is true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Liverpool Football Club isn’t like other football clubs. When Shankly spoke of the ‘holy trinity’ one of the most important members of the triumvirate he talked about was the fans. There’s a reason the people who make it inside Anfield are called the ‘12th man’, and it isn’t because a streaker sometimes pops on to the pitch and gets a touch of the ball.
From Rome through to Istanbul with plenty of important home games thrown into the mix, Liverpool fans have pushed the team on the pitch to do things that were completely unexpected. Of course it’s easier to sing when you’re in the final of a European Cup, but Anfield can still play its part in lifting the players to achieve beyond their means.
It’s no coincidence that Liverpool looked at their weakest when the crowd got nervy and lost its voice in the second half. Ticket prices to attend Premier League games are obscene, it’s true, and local fans and youngsters are being priced out of the game in favour of day trippers. Yet there is still a lifeblood of locals who sit in the stands week in week out and would rather complain than sing. What’s taking place on the pitch might not be inspiring you to rush out and get Brendan Rodgers’ face tattooed on your arm, but you need to remember that if you’re in the ground you aren’t paying the big bucks to watch an experience, you’re paying to be a part of one – and you can still make a genuine difference.
Lucas Proves The Need For A Defensive Midfielder
Lucas is, without question, the lazarus of Liverpool. Every time you think he’s been dealt a knockout blow from which he won’t be able to recover he bounces straight back up and asks for more.
Under Rafa Benitez the Brazilian defensive midfielder was spoken of as a waste of a starting place; the only Brazilian who can’t score goals and is rubbish on the ball. Rafa persisted with him, though, seeing something in him that nobody else really understood – largely because what Lucas offers to the team isn’t anything fancy but it can be vitally important.
Lucas Leiva’s understanding of the game is second to none and he often displays a ‘game intelligence’ that managers love so much. Having been under-appreciated for most of Rafa’s reign – with some falsely disdaining him for the fact that he seemed to represent the Spanish manager’s worst traits of defensiveness over attacking play – he came into his own during the short lived return of Kenny Dalglish. So much so that when he was injured in the cup match against Chelsea it took the Reds a while to figure out how best to replace him.
That injury caused Lucas problems that he’s struggled to recover from over the last few years. Each time he seems to be making a comeback he either gets another niggle or else gets dropped and fails to get the run in the team he needs to get up to speed.
Brendan Rodgers has never bought a defensive midfielder in his managerial career. That’s not to suggest that he’s never used one, it’s just that they don’t fit into his philosophy as much as he’d like so he’s never bothered to spend money on one. Indeed he is so non-plussed by the very idea of a defensive midfielder that Lucas himself was a matter of hours away from a move to Galatassaray this summer. If Jordan Henderson hadn’t picked up an injury meaning that Lucas needed to step in to replace him against Arsenal he would no longer be a Liverpool player.
Perhaps the game against Aston Villa has shown the manager not only the important of Lucas himself to Liverpool but also of his value to this team in particular. He didn’t start off brilliantly, misplacing a few passes and putting the team under needless pressure. He soon found his feet, however, and had figured out Adama Traore’s game in less than five minutes. He also stood on Rudy Gestede’s feet, figuratively speaking, and limited the amount of damage the big target man could do at times.
The Brazilian put in a captain’s performance against Villa, especially in the second half when both his team mates and the crowd started to get nervous about the scoreline and the possibility of a Villa advance. He was marvellous, always ending up in the right place at exactly the right time, cutting out passes and stifling the Midlanders to perfection. Lucas is a momentum player who needs time on the pitch to keep his head in the game. Whether Rodgers is at Liverpool for the forseeable future or is forced to move on elsewhere, hopefully the Brazilian has shown him not all midfielders have to be able to score goals – stopping the opposition scoring them can be just as important.
Defensive Woes Once More
Praise of Lucas shouldn’t allow anyone to think that Liverpool’s defence doesn’t need admonishment. In reality, the Brazilian helped to mask over what was another defensively naïve display from the Reds. By playing Emre Can in a three man defence alongside Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho and by adding Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno in the wing back positions Brendan Rodgers ostensibly had a five man defence. Add in Simon Mignolet in goal and the aforementioned Lucas Leiva in the defensive midfield spot and you’ve essentially got seven defensive players on the pitch for the majority of the game. That’s more than half of your team who are predominantly defenders.
Yet still Liverpool conceded two goals against a terrible team.
Admittedly there’s not much anyone could have done about Rudy Gestede’s second goal; the precision of the cross combined with the power behind the header meant that the goal was a foregone conclusion before the ball had even left the former Blackburn man’s head. Without the likes of Christian Benteke to challenge him for the ball it was the sort of unfair fight that teachers would put a stop to in the playground; a giant man of a Villa attacker against seemingly childlike Liverpool defenders.
That was the second goal, but what of the first? Well no one really covered themselves with glory, to be honest. Mignolet might have wanted to pin the blame on Sakho and Martin Skrtel might have stayed out of the argument in the hope that no one would notice he was doing his usual wrestling routine instead of trying to deal with the incoming ball, but they all deserved a slating for their actions in the build up to the goal. Emre Can might feel he was unfairly tasked with having to mark Gestede, like James being told it was his job to stop the giant peach from rolling downhill, but the German could still have done something crazy like follow his runner if he’d really wanted to.
Last season Liverpool set a record for the number of clean sheets they were able to keep, leading Brendan Rodgers to make a sly remark referencing the ‘defensive coach’ Liverpool fans had been calling for. It was fair enough for the manager to respond to his critics with a bit of a tongue in cheek comeback, but the reality is that Liverpool have never looked defensively solid under Rodgers and the clean sheets were an anomaly, not the norm.
Liverpool are at their best under Rodgers when they abandon their foolish attempts to be defensively solid and instead opt to simply out score their opposition. Yet with seven defensive players on the pitch it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that an Aston Villa team who barely seemed to know how to tie the laces on their boots before rocking up to Anfield really shouldn’t be allowed to score two goals.
Whether it’s his determination to be tactically different – using Emre Can as a defender at times and a midfielder at others depending on what’s going on on the pitch, for example – or his stubborn desire to be proven right remains to be seen, but the sooner that Rodgers realises that he’s an attacking manager at heart and abandons his plans to cast himself as a Mourinho lite the better it will be for all concerned.
Sturridge Is A Vital Cog In The Rodgers Machine
This win should not allow anybody to think that Brendan Rodgers’ position as Liverpool manager is safe and sound. He’s made too many mistakes, ruffled too many feathers and lost too many members of the Anfield faithful for that to be the case.
Yet if you wanted to find reasons for the team’s poor performance over the last eighteen months that might act as excuses for the manager then you don’t need to look much further than the wriggly arm dancing fella who led the line for the Reds on Saturday.
Daniel Sturridge is a world class striker and is absolutely integral to the way this Liverpool team performs when it’s at its best. He currently has the best strike rate of any Liverpool player in the Premier League era; an era that has seen the likes of Fowler, Owen, Torres and even a certain Luis Suarez grace the Anfield turf.
Fowler played 266 games for the Reds and scored 128 goals, giving him a goal every 0.48 games. Owen, meanwhile, netted 118 times in 216 games meaning that his ratio is 0.55. Suarez was prolific, there can be no question, especially in his final season as a Liverpool player. He played 110 games and scored 69 goals, meaning he scored a goal every 0.63 games. Torres, for all of his disinterest under Roy Hodgson, still managed to notch 65 goals in 102 games meaning his ratio was 0.64. And Sturridge? He’s been fit for 65 games and during that time has scored 37 goals, meaning he nets a goal every 0.65 games.
In other words, when he’s fit he’s the best goalscorer Liverpool have had since football was invented by the Premier League in the early 90s.
When he’s fit.
No three words have ever been more important to Brendan Rodgers. Losing Luis Suarez to Barcelona was unfortunate but, once the Catalans made their interest known, unavoidable. Liverpool would have been damaged by his departure but, provided they could have kept Sturridge fit, not mortally wounded. By removing the England man from the equation too, however, Liverpool’s attack was shorn of its most potent talent. Whilst Rodger’s chief detractors will bore anyone who’ll listen by claiming that the 2013 – 2014 title challenge was all down to the magical Uruguayan, they fail to remember that Suarez was top scorer the previous season and yet didn’t hit his highest heights until Sturridge arrived on the scene in January.
He’s not even close to fully fit yet and at times against Villa he looked moody and disinterested. Yet he still scored two goals and terrified Tim Sherwood’s defenders for the duration of the game. He makes the pitch look huge – no easy feat at Anfield given it’s one of the smaller patches of grass in the Premier League. He creates space for others, occupies defenders and is absolutely deadly when he gets into the spaces.
The win against Villa doesn’t change much. Instead of it being 16 points in 15 games it’s now 19 points in 16 games – a poor return for a club of Liverpool’s quality. But if Sturridge stays fit there’s no telling what could happen in the coming weeks. The league is, frankly, deadful; a fact that is proven by Manchester United’s position at its summit. If we see the wriggly arm dance as many times as his stats suggest we could is it really so unrealistic to think Liverpool could put up a fight at the top of the table? Only time will tell.