Last season saw Liverpool come as close to a realistic title challenge as they have for a number of years. Luis Suarez had become the most potent force in the Premier League and Steven Gerrard had performed exceptionally in his ‘quarter-back’ role, spraying around the passes to feed a voracious front line. Add in the pace of Sturridge and the emerging force of Jordan Henderson in midfield, and there was little reason to question the credentials of Brendan Rodgers’ squad as a growing power in English football. That was certainly the headline theory anyway. Some however, had doubts.
The lack of league success in the preceding season had meant that the Reds were shorn of any European commitments to clutter up their season, and were allowed to drill a focused concentration on domestic football with a reduced fixture list. Such an abridged season put less nagging physical pressure on the talismanic Gerrard as the mainspring of the Liverpool midfield engine, meaning he could play consistently without any urgent need to rest the thirty-odd year old legs.
Just down the road, Manchester United were suffering the traumas of David Moyes’ aborted term in charge at Old Trafford, and in west London, Jose Mourinho was still sliding his feet back under the table in his Stamford Bridge office. Arsenal were of course being Arsenal, and despite the brightest of beginnings for new star signing Mesut Ozil, the Gunners’ league challenge melted away just as the Spring buds were bursting through. With only Manchester City then to deal with as sustained challengers, it was a perfect storm of opportunity for Liverpool to quickly strike back at Manchester United’s record haul of title wins.
This wasn’t the emergence of a new force in football, the counter-theory therefore went. This was just almost an open goal that had presented itself to the Anfield faithful. That Rodgers’ squad failed to convert what had surely become realistic dreams into glory does little to prove either theory correct. Relinquishing a seemingly impregnable three goal lead against Crystal Palace, and ‘slipping up’ at home to Chelsea formed a tepid end to their aspirations, but answered little as to the club’s long term prospects. The true test would only be the performance of the squad in the new season. Now, with nine league games done and dusted, a few domestic cup encounters completed and European competition now reengaged, the verdict may well be in.
Some may point to the loss of Suarez as the main drive to the club’s fortunes. It’s an arguable point. Which team would not miss the goals, assists and sheer dynamism of the little Uruguayan, now decamped to Catalunya and the Camp Nou? Others may say that Suarez leaving was always on the cards, and it’s the failure to adequately fill the huge gap he left by signing the likes of Ricky Lambert and the enigma that is Mario Balotelli is the main problem. Throw in the long loss to injury of Daniel Sturridge and there’s clear merit in the logic.
Ask many a Kopite, and a return to the top table of European football would be high on the wish list. Harsh lessons during Champions League games to date however have served to eat away at the squad’s confidence. From this point, should the group denouement see them fall into the ‘abyss of the lost’ that is the Europa League – a possibility that hardly looks remote – a seemingly interminable series of games will stretch out into the distance to test the muscles and sinews of Mr Gerrard to the extreme. The impact on the squad of any meaningful injury to their skipper would be difficult to contemplate, but it would only be a debate about how deep the hole was – rather than if there was one there at all.
It would be wrong to write off Liverpool’s season. At this early stage, there is still time for things to get back on track, but given that all of the things mentioned here have come to pass, whether any loss of performance is down to one or all of them is fairly academic. The seemingly undeniable truth is that Liverpool appear to be less of a potent force than they did last year.
Brendan Rodgers remains one of the country’s brightest young coaches, and there’s sure to be significant reinforcement of the assets at his disposal during the January window. That said, raising the Reds back to the heights they reached last season will be no easy task. Should he not be able to achieve it, many will simply deduce that Liverpool’s perfect storm of last season has largely blown itself out.
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for ‘theaspirier’ website).