Despite throwing away a 3-0 lead that ended in a draw against Crystal Palace earlier this week, Liverpool has made remarkable progress under manager Brendan Rodgers this season. Rodgers took charge of Liverpool in July 2012, and his first six months were all about getting both the players and manager in tune. Rodgers is a manager who likes a passing, possession game, and he wants his teams to play the game in a beautiful manner. With the players finally understanding what their new boss wanted of them, Liverpool made an impressive run from January 2013 to the end of this season.
During Rodgers’ reign, Liverpool’s points per game average has steadily increased.
The progress has been remarkable indeed. But if we take a look at the mini league between the Premier League’s top four teams, which can prove most important when it comes to winning trophies, then it’s quite shocking how only one team is dominating the table. And yes, it is Chelsea.
Chelsea has been spot on when it comes to the big games. The tactics and mindset that Mourinho has is simple: if it’s the first half of the season, and you are having an away game, he will be very happy to take a 0-0. Four clean sheets out of six against the rest of the top four is some record. If we put defense and clean sheets apart, one of the main reasons for Mourinho’s satisfaction with 0-0 is not only one point but that draw also damages your direct rivals by preventing them from securing an extra two points.
Liverpool were top of the table at Christmas with their three defeats up to that point coming against Arsenal away, Hull away and Southampton at home. Liverpool had played very attractive football and were entering the New Year with two big fixtures away to Manchester City and Chelsea. Those two games were always going to be difficult thanks to the amazing depth and wonderfully experienced players City and Chelsea can use.
On the other hand, Rodgers had a very thin squad and many of them were experiencing the busy festive period for the first time. Liverpool were entering that four-day period with not only a smaller squad than their rivals, but also with the injuries to the likes of Daniel Sturridge. In fact, Liverpool had only 16 players squad available.
Now at this point of time, a reality check was required. Yes, we all love attacking football with beautiful passing, but at the end of the day points – and trophies – matter more.
Being realistic in the Premier League is about relative positioning. Going for a victory in both the games was one of the biggest mistakes that Brendan Rodgers made. The loss at the Etihad left players completely exhausted. And with less energy, Liverpool went to Stamford Bridge and Chelsea took the advantage of the same weakness. Liverpool threw away 1-0 leads in both matches, and had they settled for a draw in both those matches, the landscape of the title race would have earned Liverpool two extra points but also left City and Chelsea with two precious points each.
It was an eye opener. But after those results Liverpool made an amazing recovery in 2014. Liverpool were unbeaten since that game at Chelsea and won 11 games on the run. Surely, with the kind of mistakes he learned against his two title rivals, Rodgers must have learned his lesson. But the Chelsea game at Anfield proved he hadn’t. Liverpool got into an emotional attachment with beautiful, attacking football and forgot that their opponents were more desperate for a win than they were. Chelsea came to Anfield to frustrate Liverpool. The plan worked to perfection. Had Rodgers played it wisely, Liverpool’s end to the season would’ve been even better.
Still, take nothing away from the young manager. Rodgers has done remarkable job in his first two seasons. Crucially, Liverpool are back in the UEFA Champions League, and that will attract very good players. Champions League football requires a strong squad and cool minds that can handle pressure. More importantly, Champions League knockout games are not about winning two games or having more shots on target. It’s about getting the job done and getting results. Hopefully Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool will grow from the lessons of this season and make Liverpool supporters dream again.