A Sense Of Hope
There’s something to be said for the nature of hope. Before a ball was kicked this weekend every team in the league had hopes of their own; from the possibility of winning the league through to the hope of simply surviving in the toughest league in the world, football fans were faced with endless possibilities.
What hopes did Liverpool fans have for the match against Stoke at The Britannia Stadium? There’s no question that some of the more cynical ones were hoping for a repeat of last season’s embarrassing 6-1 loss in case it might lead to Brendan Rodgers’ position becoming untenable and to his eventual dismissal. Others were keen to see the Reds improve upon that result and hopefully hold out for a draw at a stadium where Liverpool had managed just 1 league win in 6 attempts prior to this weekend. Yet others still may well have been reminiscing about the club’s fine performance in the 2013-2014 season when the team, encouraged by the presence of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, rampaged against Stoke and ran out 5-3 winners.
The reality ended up being somewhere in the middle, with Liverpool never getting anywhere near the heights of two years ago but also looking far more resolute and solid than they did when they got pummelled 6-1 last time out. In its own way it’s entirely possible that the performance the Reds produced at The Britannia this time around offers more hope for the games to come than any other way they could have played.
Most people consider the way in which FSG have backed Brendan Rodgers this summer to be a sign that the manager is in for the long haul, even if things don’t start off as planned. Unless the Reds plunge into a relegation battle early doors it seems likely that the appointments of Gary McAllister and Sean O’Driscoll, the promotion of Pepijn Lijnders and the purchase of players like Roberto Firmino and Christian Benteke means that Brendan Rodgers will be given the full season as Liverpool manager. Whether you personally like that fact is irrelevant, it’s time to get on board and get behind him rather than be snidey and snipey from the sidelines.
A massive defeat in a similar manner to last season could have changed all of that, obviously, as it would have suggested that Rodgers had lost the dressing room and no amount of new signings had changed that fact. A bore draw, which is what looked likely until the 85th minute, would have been ok but would have got Liverpool’s season off to a disappointing start – a damp squib exploding after two months of hope building to a crescendo.
An outrageous win like that of the 3-5 victory from Liverpool’s title challenging season would have been glorious and given a real sense of fun to the season ahead, but it also might well have been somewhat false and suggested that Stoke just weren’t at the races.
Stoke were at the races, though, and it wouldn’t be outrageous to suggest that they were the better team in the opening 45 minutes. They continuously put Liverpool under pressure and asked questions of a defence that didn’t always have the answers last term. By coming under scrutiny and emerging unscathed on the other side of it all, the current blend of Liverpool players did more to give themselves encouragement than might otherwise have been the case.
Defending The Defence
Dejan Lovren is a player that can feel proud of himself when he looks in the mirror today. His performances last year were, to be blunt, utterly dreadful and he never looked likely to establish himself as a first choice centre back with the spectre of Mamadou Sakho looming large over his shoulder. Yet he was imperious at the back; controlling the line well, talking to the rest of his defenders and pushing the defence forward whenever possible. He had a couple of dodgy moments, but this Liverpool team seems to specialise in just such a thing when it comes to defending so he’s far from on his own. Rather than buckle under the pressure and the fact that he was under the microscrope from fans and pundits alike he rose to the challenge and will take a huge amount of confidence from the way he played as well as the result.
Joe Gomez has done his claims of a starting spot no end of good with his performance, too. Brought in from Charlton with the aim of being loaned straight back out, the 18 year old impressed so much in pre-season that Rodgers decided not only to keep hold of him but also to give him his debut in a match that is tough to say the least. He played very well, taking a booking for the good of the team, combining well with the likes of Coutinho when he ventured forward and generally looking as though he has plenty to offer. Rodgers won’t be in too much of a rush to sign a new left back after this performance – after all he nearly won Liverpool the league with a combination of Jon Flanagan and Aly Cissokho in the same position.
As for Nathaniel Clyne the biggest compliment he can receive is that he looked as though he’d been in the team for years. Glen Johnson had the ability to look like a Rolls Royce of a player and a Lada in the same match when he played for the Reds, controlling the ball wonderfully one minute before hitting it straight out of play the next. Clyne is an upgrade on GlenJo to say the very least. He looked solid at the back and full of energy bursting forward and you get the feeling that he’ll combine well with Jordan Ibe the more that they play together.
The Men In The Middle
Moving on to the midfield, it was a tricky match for the players to get in to, really. In the absence of Steven Gerrard all eyes were on the new captain Jordan Henderson and the new boy James Milner. They dogged it out well with a Stoke midfield that was somewhat at odds with the new way of playing that Mark Hughes is apparently keen to install at The Britannia. With the purchase of flair players like Bojan, Ibrahim Afellay and the soon to arrive Xherdan Shaqiri it’s rumoured that Hughes wants to put to bed the more physical nature of Tony Pulis’ Stoke. Yet Charlie Adam and Steve Sidwell can mix it with the best of them and they weren’t afraid to put it about in the middle of the park.
Hendo and Milner responded well, matching them in the fight but never really getting dragged down to their level. The problem is that they also needed to offer Christian Benteke some support and in that department they let the big Belgian striker down. Philippe Coutinho will also be a little disappointed that didn’t get into the game more, only really starting to pull the strings when Emre Can was introduced for Adam Lallana in the second half. So much of Liverpool’s best work goes through the diminutive Brazilian that he really must develop an ability to ensure he’s involved even when the opposition try to stifle him out of the game. Stoke won’t be the only team that tries to nullify his threat this season after all.
Rodgers admitted after the match that he was gearing up to replace Coutinho just before he popped up with the goal. “He can always produce that bit of magic”, said the Liverpool manager. Yes he can indeed. Coutinho was in the periphery for the majority of this match, but great players can always do something and Coutinho could now quite rightly be considered to be one of Liverpool’s great players in this current squad. His goal, which is now becoming something of a trademark, was sensational and he deserves all the plaudits heaped on him for it.
Jordan Ibe is another player that might wonder what he really offered in the match other than some nice bright boots. The winger was the constant outlet for Liverpool as they tried to move forward but he often found himself running down some dark alleys in the search for an opportunity to cross, only to find himself lost and alone. He’s young and he’ll get better with every match, but he could really do with a goal or an assist quite early on in order to help him calm down and realise that his future at the club is as bright as his footwear.
Attack Attack Attack
So much has been made of Christian Benteke and how the big, powerful forward would fit in to Liverpool’s system over the past month or so that you’d be forgiven for thinking the Reds had signed a giant or an ogre rather than a talented forward whose most obvious attribute is his strength. He’s never going to be the new version of the whirling dervish that was Luis Suarez, yet he’s also so much more than simply a tall target man. His presence on the pitch gives Liverpool options aplenty. No longer does Simon Mignolet need to roll the ball out to a pair of centre backs who look less than comfortable in possession every single time he has the ball. Now if the opposition attack or midfield pushes forward the ‘keeper can go long to his strong attacker, knowing that he’ll win it more often than not.
Benteke definitely completed his side of the bargain time and again, winning header after header and out-muscling a strong Stoke defence. The problem is that Liverpool rarely had anyone up in support of the Belgian, meaning he was winning the ball only to see it land at the feet of a Stoke defender. That’s the sort of thing that will come with time, with the rest of the squad trusting in his ability to win it in the air and gambling to be on the end of it. He’s not just about that though, often making nice runs in behind the defence or taking a couple of players on in order to get himself into a shooting position. The more that the likes of Milner, Henderson, Coutinho and Firmino see him making those runs the more often they’ll try to find him and defences could be in trouble.
Benteke gives Liverpool options, yes, but he also gives the opposition plenty to think about, too. More often than not teams will have to dedicate two players to Benteke rather than just the one. The first player will challenge him for every ball that gets hit up to him, the other will need to attempt to mop up the balls that he wins. This will create space for Liverpool’s other attacking players and the return of Daniel Sturridge will be a nightmare in that scenario.
In 2013-2014 Liverpool used the phenomenal combination of Suarez and Sturridge to out score their opposition. Last season, in the absence of both, they hoped that a tighter defence would make up for the 50+ goals they lost. This season we could see a combination of the two tactics and Brendan Rodgers knows that some added steel to the team will do them the world of good.
A Pressing Matter
In Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Danny Ings the Liverpool manager has got a group of players that run and press and harry and close down the opposition, pushing them to the point that they crack and make mistakes. Combine that with Coutinho and Firmino’s skill, Benteke’s strength and Daniel Sturridge’s deadly finishing and you’ve got the makings of a very good team indeed.
It’s very rare for teams to play exceptionally good football on the opening day of the season. There’s a combination of reasons for this, from the fact that the teams you tend to play in pre-season aren’t always the best, through to the lack of knowledge you have about how the team you’re facing will be playing after a summer of new acquisitions. So the first game of a new season can, more often than not, just be about the result. Yet to suggest that that’s all Liverpool achieved against Stoke would be dismissive of a greater achievement. The Reds went to The Britannia 11 weeks after their worst performance in living memory knowing that all eyes were on them and that they had to make up for that abysmal display. They could have wilted and buckled under pressure but they did not.
Teams rarely play their best football away to Stoke. From a hostile crowd through to often quite miserable weather, The Britannia is a nasty place to go and will be the downfall of plenty of teams this term. Liverpool were able to silence the crowd, mix it with a physical group of players and leave with all three points. If you can’t feel joyous about that then what exactly are you in it for?
It’s A Different Challenge
Chelsea dropped points at home to Swansea. Arsenal dropped points at home to West Ham. Manchester United took all three points from Spurs, but they hardly looked convincing doing it. The Red Devils had just seven shots on goal in the duration of the match with only five of them being on target. In fact at one point in the game the home team were one nil up without having registered a single shot on target.
Liverpool have to be thinking about mounting another title challenge this year. Anything less than that can only lead to disappointment. Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City occupied the top four spots at the end of last season and all four of them will be thinking about trying to win the title this time out. If they’re aiming for the top of the table and Liverpool are only aiming for fourth, which teams are likely to finish the highest?
Hope is a funny thing. Some people don’t like to embrace it, they feel as though admitting to hopes of hitting the heights will somehow jinx things. Even in 2013-2014, when Liverpool were top at Christmas and looked like challenging all the way through the final part of the campaign, plenty of Liverpool fans thought it was tempting fate to imagine the Reds lifting the trophy at the end of the season. Yet such negativity hasn’t helped over the past 26 years, so why is it likely to help now? The Reds have started off with a solid performance, a piece of magic and all three points. If that doesn’t give you hope for the games that remain, what will?