Two games into the season, Liverpool finds itself tied for second place near the top of the Premier League table with Tottenham Hotspur. It’s the first time the Red have won their first two games of the season since 2008-09, a campaign that saw them finish in second place with 86 points.
More importantly, the club is now 5-0-1 during the first six games they have played without Luis Suárez, who has four more matches left on his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic.
It would be a bit daft to try and use Liverpool’s short-term run of success to build an argument that they are better off without the talented but mercurial Suárez. After all, the quality of the opposition has played a significant role in Liverpool’s success. Newcastle United, Fulham, Queens Park Rangers, Stoke City and Aston Villa are the five teams the Reds have beaten, and they certainly do not fall into the category of a murder’s row of opponents.
Be that as it may, Liverpool is winning and, in the process, is learning a valuable lesson – how to win without Suárez. And if they can remember that lesson, it just may carry them throughout the upcoming season and make it an unexpected success.
The biggest beneficiary of Suárez’ absence has been striker Daniel Sturridge. In the four games he has appeared in since the suspension, Sturridge has scored seven goals – including the game winners in both matches so far this season.
You can see Sturridge’s confidence grow every time walks onto the pitch without Suárez, and that confidence was on full display against Aston Villa when he scored a goal on a shot that he probably would not have even attempted at this time last season.
Manager Brendan Rodgers sees it, too.
“Firstly, it’s opportunity and confidence,” Rodgers told ESNFC.com. “He’s a player who thrives on confidence. He’s come into a really special football club where the supporters have made him feel really welcome and he’s thriving on that. He’s a number nine, he can move, he can spring, he’s a really good footballer as well, he’s not just a goal scorer. You see his movement, his touch, and he’s thrived on the confidence of his teammates and the people around the club.”
Overall, Sturridge has scored 12 goals in his 13 starts since joining Liverpool in January from Chelsea on a £12 million transfer – and is only scratching the surface of his talent, according to Rodgers.
“The frightening thing is that he has still got a bit to go in terms of his fitness,” Rodgers told The Daily Mail. “I think once he is fully fit then he will be even better. If you assess the world’s great strikers – the pace and power they have, the touch, good in the air, two good feet, super quick – then he possesses all of that.
“All we demand is he works his socks off. When he does that all his natural talent comes out, and when that comes out there are not too many better.”
If Sturridge can keep that form once Suárez returns to the lineup – and if Rodgers can effectively work both of them into the lineup – then this season may turn into something special.
Make no mistake about it. Liverpool needs Suárez. No matter how maddening he can be – and he can be quite maddening – Liverpool needs him on the pitch if they want to continue to entertain notions of challenging for a Champions League slot.
Liverpool is a club that is too big to worry about falling into the relegation zone, but not talented enough to worry the teams in front of them.
But if they have both Sturridge and Suárez playing at a high level, then all of sudden the equation starts to change in Liverpool’s favor.
Consider that since bringing Suárez to the club on a transfer from Ajax midway through the 2010-11 season, Liverpool has lost just twice when Suárez scores a goal. The Reds have posted a record of 18 wins and nine draws against those two losses (last season to Manchester United and Wigan) when Suárez finds the back of the net.*
The problem is that on too many occasions, especially last season, it was Suárez or nothing. Now, if Sturridge can play at a consistent level, and if Liverpool can get the good Suárez instead of the knucklehead Suárez, then there is a real chance that they can start taking back some of the points they left on the pitch last season.
Part of making that happen falls on Rodgers’s shoulders, but the largest part resides with Suárez. He made it known at every opportunity during the summer that he wanted out of Anfield. The only problem was that no was willing to come calling, at least not at Liverpool’s price.
Now that Suárez is back training with the club, it is up to him to put this summer behind him and be the best he can be on the pitch. Can he do that, though? Only time will tell.
So far, Liverpool has made the most of their time without Suárez. They have four more games to hone their game before he returns. What they do after that is up to them.
And what it means for the rest of the Premier League is up to Sturridge and Suárez.
*That is probably the type of statistic that needs some context. We’re sure that most teams win, or are at least competitive, when their top strikers score. But it is still a relevant fact to point out.