THE 2010/11 season started in nightmarish fashion; owners at loggerheads with each other, the club in financial disrepair, facing mountains of debt and lurching towards administration with its mandatory ten point penalty.
On the pitch things weren’t much better; Roy Hodgson was the new man at the helm, and he was steering us to the bottom of the ocean.
Defensive tactics, poor signings (Konchesky/Poulsen), an inability to convey his thoughts to the players, a lack of empathy with the fans, delusional post-match interviews, and a willingness to allow himself and his players to be walked over by Alex Ferguson, all combined to see Hodgson lose both the dressing room and the Kop.
With the Reds out of the Carling Cup, losing at home to Northampton in the third round, and sitting 19th in the Premier League, 8 games in, having just lost to Everton, it was perhaps unthinkable that events would conspire as they did to save us. First the Fenway Sports Group succeeded in their hostile takeover of the club, then, they listened to the fans and kicked Hodgson out, replacing him with Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish. He in turn, inspired us and led us on a march up the table to finish in seventh place, just missing out on Europe, but a remarkable turnaround nonetheless.
Not qualifying for Europe allowed many to trot out the line, as it is in the title of this piece, “no problem, we can focus on the league”, a cliché which to my mind is used hopefully rather than sincerely, when the club that you support has failed to reach a certain point in, or qualify for, particular competitions. There is little evidence to suggest that failure in one, or two, or more competition/s, directly results in success in another, on the contrary in fact, I would suggest that success is a habit, and winning breeds winners, just ask our old friends up the M62.
So, we come to the 2011/12 season; a season, may I remind you all, that is not over yet. Our league results have not exactly been awe inspiring so far; we began the season in positive fashion, with Charlie Adam flighting a perfect free-kick for Luis Suarez to score the first Premier League goal of the season, against Sunderland. However, as would become the pattern for our season to date, Liverpool were profligate with the other chances created in the match, and conceded a wonder-goal from Seb Larsson to end up drawing the game.
Now here we are, in seventh position, and with a real job on to improve our league standing before the season draws to a close. However, Liverpool’s league results and the table as it stands, only tell a fraction of the story of this turbulent and transitional season, and if we were to judge our club on only these cold, hard numbers we would be missing the crux of the narrative.
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The first thing to say is that we have played much better football consistently this season than we did last time out, and in fact, better football than in Rafa’s last season in charge. The chances created, saves made by opposition goalkeepers, efforts that have come back off the woodwork (22 in the Premier League), and our territorial dominance in many games, show a team that’s hungry for goals and success, and that we are moving in the right direction, without quite being clinical or ruthless enough. What it shows is that we have not yet developed the killer-instinct to take our chances when they come, and to finish teams off so that there’s no way back. However, I don’t see this as a problem for now, the team has been together less than a year, the management and ownership have been together for just over a year, these things take time to come together, and above all, continuity in the playing staff and management philosophy.
More promising signs that this ruthlessness, which is necessary for ultimate success, is coming, are the performances and results in the domestic cup competitions this season. In the absence of European competition, these were the only chances of silverware that Liverpool had this year, we’ve already won the Carling Cup, beating Chelsea, Stoke and Manchester City on our way, and we travel to Anfield South for an F.A. Cup semi-final against the Toffees in a fortnight. As suggested above, winning breeds winners, success in these cup competitions can bring a winning mentality to the young squad that we have, which will put us in a fantastic situation going into next season. European qualification, albeit via the preliminary rounds has been assured for next season already, and with a couple of shrewd signings in the summer, we can walk on with hope in our hearts. Remember, Manchester United won the F.A. Cup (1990) and the European Cup Winners Cup (1991) and used them as a platform to go on and win the Premier League (1992/93).
Injuries to key personnel have also affected Liverpool’s league position this year. Yes, all clubs have to deal with them, but all clubs have players that they struggle to do without; van Persie for Arsenal, Kompany for Manchester City, Scholes/Rooney for Manchester United. For us it has been Lucas. Other injuries have set us back, Agger, Johnson, Gerrard for example; however the one player that we could not replace and the last person we would’ve wanted to get injured this season, was Lucas Leiva.
Rapidly becoming the best ball winning midfielder in the Premier League, if not Europe, when he ruptured his cruciate ligaments, we have rarely been the same team without him. The protection he gives the back four is vital, but even more importantly, his calmness, discipline, energy, and flawless tackling in midfield allowed Charlie Adam to shine. Playing with Lucas, Adam looked worth every penny of the £7million he cost, and he has suffered more than most from the Brazilian’s unfortunate lay-off, struggling to re-capture his early season form playing alongside Steven Gerrard.
Taken holistically, our league form has not been bad this season, results have not been what we may have wanted and of course we would prefer to be sitting slightly higher, but realistically speaking, we would have been doing well to finish fourth given the upheaval the club has been through recently, and the state we were in not two seasons ago. There are still eight games to go, and if we achieve twenty points from those games, we’ll finish four points better off than we did last time. It may seem like a big ask the way the last two games have gone, but looking at the fixtures, it’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility. As far as the season as a whole goes, finishing seventh (although I reckon we’ll sneak 6th at least) and winning the two cups would, for me, meaning that the only team in England who could legitimately claim to have had a better season than us, would be the Premier League Champions. Unfortunately for us, I reckon that’s going to be our old friends again.
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