Evaluating Liverpool’s first season under Brendan Rodgers is a bit like looking at one of those "Magic Eye" pictures. If you look closely you can see the progress, but you have to work pretty hard to find it.
The Reds sit on 58 points from their 37 matches, holding six more points than they achieved last season and with another game at home to the team rock bottom of the table still to come.
That match against Queens Park Rangers at Anfield on Sunday should take the Reds and Rodgers to 61, but still wouldn’t elevate them any higher than seventh in table. Tangible progress from last season’s eighth-placed finish, of course, but hardly anything to go shouting from the rooftops about.
Yet that’s not what anyone at Liverpool ever thought they’d be doing anyway, or at least they shouldn’t have been.
There was still the occasional outbreak of hubris, such as the proclamations of a potential top-four finish when Tottenham were beaten 3-2 at Anfield in March, a result swiftly followed by a 3-1 defeat at Southampton that brought everyone back down to earth again.
That remains the most recent reverse of a season that has featured wins by three goals or more over the likes of Norwich and Wigan twice each, Fulham, QPR, Sunderland, Swansea and Newcastle United. The Reds were in complete control in all of those matches and conceded in only one of them. Many of the matches were against the league’s lesser lights, of course, but Liverpool showed a level of control and authority over them that they hadn’t really exhibited since the days of Rafael Benitez.
Against the bigger sides, they could be impressive too.
Three 2-2 draws against Manchester City (twice) and Arsenal could so easily have gone in the Reds’ favour, while two matches with Chelsea were also drawn. Only in the two narrow losses to Manchester United―where Jonjo Shelvey was sent off early in the Anfield clash―could the Reds have left the pitch knowing that they didn’t perform to their maximum.
Of course, there were still the disappointing losses, most notably home and away to West Brom, an Anfield clash with Aston Villa, trips to Stoke and Southampton and dismal cup defeats to Swansea, Oldham and Zenit St Petersburg, which denied Rodgers the chance to add the warming glow of potential trophies to his campaign in much the same way that predecessor Kenny Dalglish did.
Perhaps that will come with the new season, although Liverpool will not have the prospect of European football in 2013/14 for only the second time since 1999.
In that regard, you could view Rodgers’ debut campaign as a failure, but the manner in which the likes of Luis Suarez, Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and others have played at times makes it pretty difficult to do that.
Following the false start that occurred with the mistakes of the summer transfer window, Liverpool’s season took on more of a transitional feel than perhaps even Rodgers considered possible.
That was always going to play to his strengths and give him enough excuses to hide behind when things went wrong, but the key to believing this approach was always going to be judged on signs of progress come the end of the season, and you have to say that they've been there.
In the creativity of Coutinho and the strikes of Sturridge the Reds have added two elements to their game that were missing earlier in the campaign. It is tempting to wonder just what would have happened had both been there from the start.
They will be there next season, when Liverpool simply can’t afford to have any sort of ambiguity about them.
With some of the top clubs in the country seemingly in a state of flux then perhaps this is the time to attack, the time to improve and the time for Rodgers to kick on from what has probably been a C+ of a season―a "Magic Eye" campaign.
It’s now time to approach the higher grades with performances that you don’t have to look too hard to try and see.
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