How Liverpool Have Made Themselves a Great Premier League Team
An international break is usually either positive or negative for a football club dependent upon their last result—Liverpool's 3-0 defeat of Southampton means that their fortnight break now arrives nicely for them ahead of the end of season run-in.
With 10 games remaining, Brendan Rodgers' side are currently second in the Premier League and have the most goals scored in the 28 games played so far.
Indeed, the Reds have now scored two more than in the whole of last season and are just two points behind their total of 61 points.
The improvements in Rodgers' second year in charge at Anfield have been remarkable, and the Northern Irishman deserves great credit for making Liverpool outside challengers for the title, doing so without splashing hundreds of millions like previous sides that have broken into the top four.
So just what are the key reasons for Liverpool's improvements? We take a look at how Rodgers has gotten the most from individual players for the collective of the team.
In the early months of his time in charge of Liverpool, some supporters worried that Rodgers was too insistent upon his idealised system and formation—possession football and a 4-3-3.
Indeed, there was reason for their concerns, with Rodgers' side often found to be dominating possession but dropping points in the process.
Last season's visit to Southampton was a good example of why the concerns existed; Liverpool were humbled 3-1 by Mauricio Pochettino's high-pressing side. They repeated the feat at Anfield back in September.
But what Rodgers has done is learnt from those mistakes, and this season, we've seen him unafraid to change the team's shape dependent upon the opposition.
A 4-2-3-1 in the opening games of the season became a 3-4-1-2 when Luis Suarez returned from suspension as Rodgers sought a way to accommodate both he and Daniel Sturridge in the team.
Sturridge's injury paved the way for a return to a 4-3-3—to great effect, demolishing Spurs 5-0 in the process—before variations of a 4-2-2 were used pre- and post-Christmas.
Indeed, according to the Oh You Beauty blog, the formation used against Southampton on Saturday—utilising a diamond midfield—was the seventh different starting formation used by Rodgers in the 28 Premier League games this season.
Such tactical variance has made Liverpool an extremely unpredictable team for the opposition; will Suarez be wide? Will Sturridge play from the left? Will Philippe Coutinho be wide or in a midfield three?
The days of dominating possession but dropping points last season have been left long in the past as Liverpool this season have been often happy to concede possession then break at speed with lethal effect.
Admittedly, much of that possession for the visitors arrived in the second half when the game was already won, but the opening half too saw Liverpool sit deeper than usual, allow Everton to get players forward and then exploit the spaces left behind on the counter-attack.
Sturridge's first goal was a perfect example of such; with full-back John Stones caught high up the pitch, Sturridge had acres of space to run into and finished Coutinho's perfectly weighted through ball.
Liverpool's effectiveness on the break is reminiscent of Manchester United during the mid and late '90s, when Alex Ferguson's side would regularly cut teams apart ruthlessly on the break.
For the stats lovers out there, according to WhoScored, Liverpool have scored six goals on the counter; Chelsea have scored two, Arsenal have scored three, Man City have scored three, and Man United have not scored.
Liverpool's youthful squad was always going to improve with time and with good coaching, but the improvements to individuals this season has been staggering.
Namely, Jordan Henderson, Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Suarez, Jon Flanagan, Martin Skrtel and even Steven Gerrard are performing better this campaign than last.
Huge credit must be afforded to Rodgers for improving not only the youngsters but also those experienced players in Skrtel, Gerrard and Suarez.
Gerrard's delivery from free-kicks has been markedly improved, and he has an impressive eight goals and nine assists this season—despite playing in a deeper role since the turn of the year.
Similarly, Suarez's free-kick taking has improved immeasurably—a free-kick from around the edge of the box these days is almost as good as a penalty when Suarez is about.
"Each week, renowned psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters arrives at Liverpool's training ground and leaves his door open for any passing players or staff," explains The Telegraph's Chris Bascombe.
This has led to headlines as such:
- Liverpool FC captain Steven Gerrard says Dr Steve Peters may have saved his career (via The Liverpool Echo)
- Liverpool's resurgent Jordan Henderson says he owes recent good form to working with sports psychologist (via Simon Mullock of Mirror Football)
- Daniel Sturridge has praised the role of top sports psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters in the flying start he's made to his Liverpool FC career (via James Pearce of The Liverpool Echo)
It's no coincidence that the players who have spoken about the role Dr. Steve Peters has played in their improved form are Liverpool's standout performers this campaign.
Peters is also reported to have worked with Suarez in the aftermath of "bitegate," via BBC Sport.
Positive work with Peters certainly appears to have helped to get that extra few percent out of Liverpool's players—that and a coach who gives the players confidence to express themselves.
"From our first meeting, it was clear that Brendan was unusual in a sporting sense," explained Peters in an interview with the official LFC magazine (via Jimmy Rice of the official LFC website) last August. "A lot of people at the top don't have a psychological perspective or even insight. But Brendan does."
One of Peters most famed success stories is snooker phenomenon Ronnie O'Sullivan, who said this of Peters, via BBC Sport's report:
"It's not a quick fix with Steve, but if Liverpool stick with him and Brendan Rodgers they'll win the title. If Liverpool can have Steve there for four or five years, then they'll win the Premier League."
Speaking in September 2012, shortly after his appointment, Rodgers explained, via The Redmen TV on Youtube, that "70 odd goals" would be the target to get into the top four and thus the Champions League.
This season, Liverpool already have 73 goals—more than any other Premier League side.
Those aforementioned improvements from set pieces has been part of the picture, as has the variance of goals—such as on the counter-attack.
So too has the ruthlessness, of course, of strike duo Suarez and Sturridge—the league's top two goalscorers.
The insistence of owner John W. Henry that Suarez would remain at the club last summer, no matter the price, has proved "priceless" this season.
Sterling has added an end product this season, too, with six league goals this season—four more than last already.
The Liverpool squad looks happy, and it gives you a true sense of team spirit.
Of course, winning football matches will do that to any team, but the role of Rodgers, and indeed Dr. Peters, must be recognised, too. Happy players are created when training is enjoyable, relevant and varied.
The belief and the confidence that Rodgers affords his players has created a real sense of harmony around the club.
"It's important that we stay calm, keep taking it game by game and try to win as many as we can" said Gerrard after the victory over Southampton, as per ESPN.co.uk, but the belief is certainly there.