Liverpool needed two Steven Gerrard penalties to run out 2-1 winners over West Ham United on Sunday, but the Reds dug in and found three more points to extend their winning run and move back to the top of the Premier League table.
This win, their ninth league success in a row, takes Brendan Rodgers and his men two points clear at the top once more, with just five matches left in the season.
Now so close to the title glory which has eluded them for so long, the Reds have found themselves able to switch their tactical shape to suit the weaknesses of their opponents as they chase victory in every match, regardless of it being home or away, a table-top clash or against mid-table, defensive or physical opposition.
Brendan Rodgers and his coaching staff take the credit for that on the training ground and with their in-game management, but two players in particular are proving more essential with every passing week in that regard: Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard.
Playing at the base of midfield, whether in the diamond or the 4-3-3, Gerrard controls and dictates Liverpool's play while he also protects the back four of the defence. There were initially question marks over his restraint and ability to hold his position in such a role—those have been well and truly answered.
Gerrard covers behind his full-backs superbly well down the channels, wins the ball and makes clearances from crosses or knock-downs, and has also proven useful in the air. In possession, he frequently makes himself available to receive the ball in space, giving his team-mates time to find room themselves to receive passes higher up the pitch.
The ground-out win over West Ham was vital for Liverpool's title ambitions and, even aside from his two well-struck penalties, Gerrard's hand of influence was visible in the team taking control and pushing for the winner in the second half.
He had 111 touches during the match, comfortably more than anyone else, made 96 passes—again easily the leader, nobody from West Ham even surpassed 50—and produced one sumptuous, cross-field pass which led to the opening penalty.
Gerrard's control, vision and dynamism within his own half of the field, and just over the halfway line, are the catalysts for so much of the Reds' relentless performances. He might be no longer explosive, but now more than ever, arguably, Gerrard dictates the flow of this Liverpool team.
If theres one man in football who deserves to win the prem it's gerrard!! Absolute baller— Jonjo Shelvey (@shelveyJ) April 6, 2014
After a good start on the right flank against West Ham, Sterling faded out of the match in the first half. A tactical change at the break put him central at the tip of a diamond—and from there he flourished.
Not a winger, not a wide forward; Rodgers stated he wanted to develop Sterling as an all-round footballer, and the evidence of the second half is that this is a work in progress which has already taken enormous strides.
Sterling used his great acceleration and power to free himself from clumsy, unwieldy challenges in the centre of the park and advance Liverpool 15, 20, 30 metres up the field in a matter of seconds, before inevitably picking a telling pass, too. Twice in particular he showed the kind of awareness and execution in raking passes to open up play and pick out a team-mate that Gerrard himself might have been proud of.
Whether used a touchline-hugging option, a forward to break infield and run behind the defence or, as in the second half at Upton Park, an attacking midfielder to break into space from deeper, Sterling is showing the sort of intelligence and vision—not to mention technique—which makes him a real match-winner for Liverpool.
The fact that he is in the team in a variety of roles shows his importance to the side. Not starting every game isn't a mark of his form or ability, but rather a measure of how Liverpool choose to try to exploit opponents in different ways—knowing they still have Sterling on the bench as a genuinely top quality attacking option.
A number of fixtures playing a diamond midfield came to a run with a switch to 4-3-3 against Tottenham. The Reds started the first half at Upton Park that way, but the diamond was back at half-time. The substitute, Lucas Leiva on for Philippe Coutinho, was an interesting one from Rodgers.
Lucas can certainly play the bustling, pressing, determined role that the wider midfielders in the diamond have to cope with, but losing Coutinho's creativity as a result was a bold move, especially with no real further in-favour option on the bench to switch back later on.
It worked, though, largely as it was Sterling's pace and power, not Coutinho's guile and grace, which was asked to be the searing dagger at the tip.
B.Rodgers: "We brought Lucas on to dominate the ball a wee bit more. Diamond gave us that little bit of control." #LFC— Liverpool FC Online (@SS_LFC) April 6, 2014
Once again, Rodgers showed his ability to identify how Liverpool could best break through an opponent, and he was not hesitant about making changes to take advantage of it. Another switch, back to a three-man defence, came late on as Liverpool sought to stem the tide of aerial balls into the box.
Diligent preparation work and patterns of play on the ball are no doubt standard fare across training grounds in the Premier League, but few managers have managed to influence games by his team's tactics and technical approach as Rodgers and Liverpool have done this season.
The talk will once more be about the next game, one at a time, keep focused and working hard...but Rodgers will know he has passed an awful lot of tests with flying colours recently, and this ninth victory in a row takes Liverpool to the cusp of their biggest challenge yet.
Manchester City, at Anfield, is next for Liverpool. If they can make it 10 in a row against the favourites for the title, it will surely be time for the boss to admit he believes.