With soccer, as with any sport, the memories of the highs often supersede those of the lows. Liverpool supporters remember the miracle of Istanbul vividly, but they block out the memory of the Roy Hodgson era with nearly as much energy. Liverpool’s 2014-15 season has been exactly that, a story filled with great highs and devastating lows.
It’s no secret that the loss of Luis Suarez hit the club hard, and the players brought in by Brendan Rodgers to replace the prolific Uruguayan have been nothing short of disastrous. Fans were assured by Rodgers that the money from Suarez’s sale would be used to build the whole squad, as well as the forward position. Notably, the manager also specifically guaranteed fans that his spending spree was meticulously planned, and would be much better than Tottenham Hotspur’s famous spending splurge of Gareth Bale’s transfer fee. Rodgers was clearly wrong, as nearly every player brought in this season has been underwhelming and mediocre at best.
The season started off with a bang, as Liverpool narrowly defeated a Southampton side desperate to make a statement against the club that poached three of their best players from the previous season. The jubilation didn’t last long, as the club’s league form moved up and down over the first four months of the season. Liverpool fared well in the domestic cups during this time, though the Reds’ narrow wins against League Two Wimbledon and Championship club Middlesborough (a match that went to 14 rounds of a penalty shootout) showed that the squad was truly hanging by a string. Worst of all, Liverpool’s triumphant return to the UEFA Champions League was truly disastrous as Rodgers’ men were dumped out in November with only a single win in the group stage – a last-gasp home win against Bulgarian minnows Ludogorets.
Those first four months were some of the lows that Liverpool supporters will want to forget. Luckily for them, the club followed those dismal four months with a remarkable unbeaten streak that went for 13 Premier League matches. Rodgers was hailed as a tactical genius during this stretch, as his switch from the common 4-2-3-1 to the more radical and experimental 3-4-2-1 held the key to the Reds’ success. The new tactics filled a number of holes in the squad, from the lack of goals scored to the wealth of goals conceded. New signings like Alberto Moreno, Lazar Markovic, and Adam Lallana were beginning to slot into the squad, and goals were starting to come from all over the squad. The club was flying high and while a league title was never truly in their grasp, a return to the Champions League the following season was looking more and more possible.
Rodgers’ tactical switch bamboozled opposing managers for weeks, and as Liverpool’s players grew even more used to it, the team grew more dangerous every match. The three center-back system worked well for Liverpool’s occasionally dodgy defense, as it allowed for the occasional misstep by players like Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure. At its best, the heart of Liverpool’s defense consisted of Mamadou Sakho, Martin Skrtel, and Emre Can, but injuries and suspensions kept this unit from playing together as often as it should have. Can, a talented midfielder who had played center-back for the German youth national teams, was able to play the ball out of defense and go on charging runs up the pitch to create imbalances in midfield and attack. Moreno, Markovic, and Jordon Ibe (recalled from his Derby County loan in early 2015) would all put in solid shifts at wingback, using their speed to pin back opposing wingbacks and fullbacks alike. A packed midfield also gave talented players like Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson the freedom and space to score some spectacular goals, making up for the lack of them from the club’s strikers. Daniel Sturridge returned to the side after having been injured only a few games into the season, and helped ease the load a little bit. Raheem Sterling led the line often in this formation, scoring a handful of goals during this period as well.
But roller-coasters have to come to an end at some point, and Liverpool’s wild ride crashed back to earth in the worst possible way. The club had also crashed out of both domestic cups in that timespan, but their league form had given fans and players alike the hope that the season could be salvaged. A defeat to the club’s fiercest rivals Manchester United that included a 30-second red card for departing captain Steven Gerrard ended the club’s unbeaten run, and showed that Rodgers’ genius plan might actually have some flaws.
Managers started to see the cracks in Rodgers’ system after seeing so many teams try and fail to defeat the Reds, and Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United were the first to actually take advantage. Liverpool were decidedly outplayed in the late March match at Anfield, as United turned the tables on Liverpool by matching their width and tempo, pressing in midfield and allowing players like Coutinho no space to work their magic. Sturridge managed to score late on for the Reds, but the tactical mismatch combined with Gerrard’s lightning-quick dismissal hurt the team dearly.
Liverpool’s momentum was thrown off by the defeat, and followed it up by another humiliating defeat to a rival as they were picked apart by Arsenal at the Emirates the following week. Arsene Wenger adopted similar tactics to van Gaal, and Liverpool simply looked dazed, confused, and utterly lost. Rodgers foolishly stuck to his guns, not learning from the previous week’s mistakes; even the half-time introduction of Sturridge couldn’t save the squad that had just gone 3-0 down before the break. Since that two-game disaster, wins against relegation candidates Newcastle and Queens Park Rangers have helped boost the Reds’ chances at breaking back into the top four, but a dour draw to mid-table West Bromwich Albion and an embarrassing loss to lowly Hull City have made it seem less and less likely.
But the season isn’t over. Just as Liverpool started low, went high, and dropped back again, Manchester United have been in a crisis since their big win against the Reds. Both clubs have been on similar roller-coasters this season, and Liverpool fans will hope that they can hit one more peak over the last three matches of the season – and that Manchester United do the exact opposite.
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