MUCH has been made of Liverpool FC’s lack of success against the so called “big clubs” this season. It’s true that, under Brendan Rodgers’s reign, the Reds have yet to take maximum points against a team occupying a better league position than themselves.
However, after two excellent away performances in a week, against two of the biggest clubs in the Premier League, Reds’ fans can afford to be a little more optimistic about the progress being made at the Anfield club.
Heading into the fixtures against Arsenal and Manchester City many fans, including myself, saw both matches as something of a defining period in Rodgers’s short time at the helm – particularly coming so soon after losing to Oldham in the Cup. Defeats in these two games wouldn’t have been catastrophic by any stretch of the imagination; however a failure to take any points would have left many supporters questioning the direction that Rodgers has been taking the club.
Defeats at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and, to a lesser extent, at Anfield against Arsenal, came as a result of showing the opponents far too much respect from the start. From the 20 minute mark at White Hart Lane, the Reds were by far the better team; they had more of the ball, created more chances and limited Tottenham’s threat with a good pressing game. However, by that stage the damage had already been done, with Liverpool already two goals down.
The same can be said about the Old Trafford fixture; Liverpool started on the back foot and afforded the Manchester United midfield and Michael Carrick in particular, far too much time on the ball (the omission of Henderson in favour of Joe Allen played a major role in this). In the second half, the Reds re-jigged and responded, taking control of the game as United backed off, protecting their lead.
The fact that Liverpool reacted and came very much back into both games is neither here nor there; against the top teams you cannot afford to only start playing when you fall behind, you must be on top of your game from the first minute to the last.
Going by the last two games, it seems that Liverpool have learnt that lesson. Right from the kick-off at the Emirates the Reds pressed Arsenal high up the pitch, affording their back five and midfielders very little time on the ball and hustling and harrying them into mistakes.
They got their reward early in the game; Luis Suarez netted from inside the box, after Henderson had had the presence of mind to pick out the Uruguayan, following a catalogue of errors in the Arsenal back line. The Reds went on to dominate the half and should have added to their advantage before half-time.
After the break the momentum changed, with the home side upping the tempo of their passes and beginning to take a grip on the game. Liverpool snatched a second goal, against the run of play through Jordan Henderson and at that stage it was looking like they’d head back to Merseyside with all three points. However, Arsenal got back into the game shortly afterwards, through a Giroud header from a set piece and, with the Emirates in full voice, grabbed an equaliser just minutes later through a blistering Theo Walcott finish.
Having put so much into the game, the Reds tired slightly in the closing stages. However, they almost snatched all three points when Luis Suarez, who’d worked tirelessly for the team in a wide position, forced Szczesny into a smart stop in the dying seconds. That Liverpool failed to close the game out from 2-0 was disappointing, however to go to the Emirates, where Arsenal have been very strong all season, and play so well coming away with a point was enough to quell the disappointment of not taking all three.
When City scored it was against the run of play – Edin Dzeko tapping in from close range after clever movement to lose Daniel Agger. So often in recent seasons, we’ve seen Liverpool heads go down after conceding the first goal in a game; not on Sunday though. Daniel Sturridge fired a quick response for the Reds when he smashed in a left-footed drive from the edge of the box. City complaints fell on deaf ears as Edin Dzeko feigned injury in the hope of breaking up play, Liverpool played to the whistle and got their just desserts.
The Reds continued to impose their game-plan on proceedings and began to gradually turn the screw as the second half progressed. Finally, less than 20 minutes from the end, Steven Gerrard set himself to strike a bouncing ball on the edge of the box, and the result was exquisite. The way that Gerrard celebrated summed up what all Reds must’ve been feeling at that moment – “We may just win this one here”.
We might well have done too; there’s no doubt that Liverpool were the better side and had control of the game. It was difficult at that point, despite City’s recent history of comebacks, to see Mancini’s side getting back into the game. Unfortunately though, a miscalculation from Pepe Reina gave Sergio Aguero a sniff of a chance, to which he applied a sublime and devastating finish.
Honours even at the end of the game, however the way in which Liverpool went about the job was more than impressive. The Reds had more of the possession, had more shots on goal and had more shots on target than their megabucks opponents; they dictated the play and can count themselves more than a little unfortunate to come away with just a point. Liverpool’s performance left many City fans claiming that Rodgers’s side was the strongest visiting team to play at the Etihad this season, high praise indeed.
Sturridge has added an extra dimension to the side in an attacking sense, while the progression of Henderson, Enrique and, to a lesser extent, Downing, has served to add strength to the squad as well as providing the manager with options. The club’s most recent acquisition, Coutinho, has yet to make his debut in a Reds’ shirt but is likely to feature against West Brom this coming weekend.
The little Brazilian, who has been described in his homeland as being similar to Oscar only with a better first touch and finish, is a relative mystery on these shores. However, having been given the number 10 shirt, Liverpool fans hope that he can live up to his undoubted promise and add a touch of Brazilian magic and flair to what is a rapidly improving side.
In the context of this season, these two results and performances will hopefully become a defining point in the Reds’ campaign. With no further visits to the grounds of the “big four” and with City, United and the Gunners all having been played twice, the toughest tests Liverpool face, on paper at least, are visits from Spurs, Chelsea and Everton.
Rodgers’s side have generally been commanding when facing “weaker teams” this season, as well as being very assured at home in recent times. Should the Reds continue these trends for the rest of the campaign then a top four finish is not out of the question.
You can catch up with Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 and on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com