WATCHING Liverpool’s home win against Southampton last weekend was an interesting experience.
There were many positives to take from the game which inspired a sense of true belief within me for the first time in quite a while whilst watching us play.
I am a fan, first and foremost, so I will always have hope and, for the most part, faith that Liverpool will win games, trophies and challenge for top honours as they once did, however belief has been a distant cousin to hope and faith over the past few years.
To be fair, Kenny’s half season in charge, when he took over from the man who will not be mentioned, inspired belief that he could once again deliver greatness. However, poor decisions in the transfer market and unfortunate injuries dampened that belief rather quickly and, by the back end of last season, all us fans had left was blind faith once more.
This season again brought change at a management level (unfortunately something that we’ve begun to grow accustomed to) and, with change comes the need for patience and yet more faith. Pre-season gave us hope, along with the promise of a new footballing philosophy which would bring results, however an opening day mauling at West Brom quickly brought us all back down to earth.
After West Brom we’ve performed well in large periods of matches (Arsenal, aside) and, whilst not winning too many games, we’ve been on top in many of them and, more often than not, picked up at least a point.
The problem has been that despite being in control of games with the ball, we have looked dangerously out of control without it and, while you can hope to win games playing in this manner, you can’t really have true belief that victories will come if the team looks likely to concede every time it loses possession.
The match against Southampton was different. We looked in total control of that match, with and without the ball, and that, is why my belief levels are beginning to rise again. The key to this control was the return of Lucas Leiva as the midfield anchor. The Brazilian slipped back into the heart of the midfield with consummate ease after roughly a year out with various injuries and what a difference he made.
As fans, we’ve had to get used to not having Lucas in the side and during that time it’s no coincidence that we’ve become accustomed to conceding soft goals, often on the break and nearly always against the run of play. With Lucas back, that phenomenon will surely come to an end. Those counter attacks will now be snuffed out and broken down at source, the ball will be won back higher up the pitch before the opposition attack has had time to develop.
Lucas’s return not only helps us defensively but also further forward. With Lucas in position it encourages and gives the fullbacks licence to raid down the flanks without fear. The fullbacks are massively important in the system that Rodgers employs; they provide the attacking width as the wide men tuck inside to support the striker. If the fullbacks can’t get forward often enough then the system lacks width and becomes very easy to defend against.
Whilst Allen did an admirable job filling in for Lucas in his absence, defensive midfield is not his best position and he simply doesn’t possess the quality which Lucas has in that position. Lucas’s return provides the defence with a huge insurance policy, allowing Enrique and Johnson (as it was v Southampton) to push right up on the opposition and pose a real threat, as we saw particularly with Glen Johnson in the first half of that match. Having Lucas there also allows the centre backs to split properly and suddenly the system, which had been looking iffy in terms of having the personnel to play it, looked like the system we’d all been hoping to see.
His return alleviates a large amount of Allen’s leg work, it pushes him forward and allows him to look to try and feed quick balls into the forward players which is what he’s best at. There were signs and definite moments in the game against Saints where we saw Allen’s potential to pick the right forward pass quickly and accurately, I expect to see it feature much more prominently as the season progresses and with any luck, we’ll see Allen thrive in his preferred position before too long.
Steven Gerrard is another player who’ll benefit massively from having Lucas back fit and in the starting line-up. We saw it against Southampton and now hopefully we’ll see it throughout the rest of the season; Steven Gerrard being freed from defensive worries and being pushed further forward where he can really do damage for us. One of the most important players for Liverpool during the last decade can now return to the area of the pitch where opposition players dread to see him and can begin to influence games with incisive passing and hopefully a return to goal-scoring form.
Having Lucas back and fit (let’s pray he stays that way) is massive, not only in terms of the qualities he brings to the side with his vital attributes but also because he is the lynchpin around which everything fits. When Lucas is in the side, everybody else can not only play in their natural position, but also can afford to commit at a much higher level to attacking, in the knowledge that there is cover behind them. Simply put, Lucas gives belief not only to the likes of us as fans, but also, crucially, he inspires belief throughout the rest of the side, and that belief is vital in terms of turning draws into wins, losses into draws and putting points on the board during a season.
Many will read this post and think, it was just a 1-0 home win over Southampton, what’s he getting so excited for? Well, it’s because for the first time under Rodgers, we’ve seen almost all of our best players playing in their rightful positions and the difference was huge. Gerrard was pushed forward linking the play and involving himself in and around the opposition penalty box, Reina had another good game as he returns to form, Agger and Skrtel looked assured and confident at centre-half, Lucas robustly anchored the midfield allowing Enrique and Johnson (who were brilliant) to go forward and create havoc.
Luis Suarez was, as per usual, a different class and, with him leading the line for us we’re always going to cause trouble. There’s neither a better player, nor a better frontman, in the Premier League than our Uruguayan and, with the team coming together around him, things are beginning to look promising for the Reds.
The final score was only 1-0 and should have been more; however it never ever had the feeling as if we were going to concede. We recognised that we had complete control and the ease and assurance with which we saw the game out has been in evidence on all too few occasions at Anfield in recent years. Southampton had been on an excellent run of form, unbeaten in four, picking up eight points during that run and conceding just three goals, adding context to the performance and the result.
With the exception of Shelvey, perhaps, that was as close to Rodgers’s first choice eleven that we’ve seen so far and we looked good. After that result we sit just seven points off third place and between now and January we have a very appealing run of fixtures on paper. If Rodgers can turn that team out more often than not, I can see us picking up plenty of points and being right in the mix come transfer window time.
Then it’ll be up to Rodgers and the owners to add some new faces who can help us kick on in the second half of the campaign, because at this point, with league shaping up as it is, fourth spot looks eminently achievable.
You can catch up with Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 and on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/