There were two distinct sides to Liverpool last season. The Jekyll and Hyde comparisons were usually reserved for the difference between their attacking and defending, but those were typically two sides of the same coin: Liverpool conceded so many goals in part because they pushed so many men forward in attack.
Rather, the key difference was between the start and end of the season. Early on, Liverpool didn’t look a cohesive team and were winning gamesÂ thanks to their superior quality in previous years they would have drawn or lost mainly, however their late winning streak coincided with a change to a high octane style both on and off the ball.
Whether it was Brendan Rodgers attempting to keep a thin squad fit for the season’s climax with a game management strategy common under Rafa Benitez, coping with the losses of both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge at certain points in the season or Rodgers realising that Liverpool were still in an unexpected title race and going all out, there was a clear divergence in the type of football Liverpool played that started with the 5-0 thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur in mid-December but didn’t resurface again until their 4-0 destruction of Everton at the end of January.
Between these two games Liverpool had struggled with the busy Christmas schedule, including a 2-1 loss to eventual winners Man City. While Arsenal had outclassed Liverpool in early November and Chelsea beat them a few days after the City game, it was the Boxing day clash that really encapsulated this half of Liverpool’s season. The Arsenal game came while the season was still getting up to speed while Chelsea’s win was marred by appalling officiating from Howard Webb, yet City’s win at the Etihad showed the gap between them and Liverpool. After years in the wilderness, topping the league at Christmas looked hopeful, but the manner in which City simply swatted away Liverpool showed how much ground they still had to make up.
While not their best performance of the season, the return at Anfield was arguably the greatest encapsulation of Liverpool’s fantastic second half of the season – the tipping point that made them the genuine favourites to win the league.
One of the most obvious changes between the matches was the form of Philippe Coutinho. The Brazilian had been the stand-out player the previous season after arriving in January, but he struggled at the start of 2013-14 and his place in the starting eleven was being questioned within Liverpool’s support.
His dip in form came from a change in how Sturridge and Suarez were used. The previous year, fellow new signing Sturridge had been used as a foil to make space for Suarez, sitting on the shoulder of the last defender and constantly looking to dart in behind to push the defensive line back and stretch the space between them and the midfield for Suarez to operate in. With Suarez’s natural tendency to move out towards the right hand side, Coutinho had lots of space to cut inside from the left and slide through balls between the defenders for Sturridge, best exemplified by Sturridge’s second goal in his hattrick against Fulham.
Suarez’s goalscoring ability meant the next season he was pushed forward more and Sturridge was no longer leading the line in the same way, showing his more complete all-round ability as he dropped deep or moved wide in Liverpool’s build-up. While this was good for Suarez and Sturridge, who topped the league’s goalscoring charts, it wasn’t so good for Coutinho, whose best attacking combination had been removed from Liverpool’s arsenal.
The Boxing day match at Man City was Coutinho’s new unease on the left reaching its head. A small and slight playmaker, Coutinho was never going to stand out as being a noteworthy defender and within two minutes Pablo Zabaleta had already raced deep into Liverpool’s penalty area as Coutinho looked on uncomfortably from the edge of the box, repeating the move down the outside minutes later. Coutinho’s awkwardness when defending isn’t all that uncommon, although the bigger concern was maybe that, despite scoring the opener, he hadn’t really done anything to worry or pin back Zabaleta.
Ten minutes in, he attempted his successful move from the previous season, coming inside to curl a ball between Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany but, unlike Sturridge, lone frontman Suarez had moved out to the right and midfield runner Jordan Henderson didn’t get near the pass as it rolled through to Joe Hart. Each dribble he attempted had him stuck down a narrow gap and it was only when he came into fairly deep central positions that he had much influence on the game, removed for Victor Moses mid-way through the second half.
Liverpool weathered the early storm caused by Zabaleta’s forays forward with a series of neat passing moves – one of which saw them score the opener – but after surrendering their lead, Liverpool struggled to regain their footing in the game as City passed around their passive 4-1-4-1 formation. Rodgers’ reaction was to throw on two attackers in Moses and Iago Aspas, although that only loosened Liverpool’s control further and showcased their lack of squad depth. It was an even game that could have easily ended in a draw, yet Liverpool rarely looked in true control and it was only through their attacking quality and constant threat on the counter that they really competed.
By the time Man City visited Anfield, Liverpool had adopted a 4-4-2 diamond formation that moved Coutinho into those deeper central areas on a more permanent basis. Coutinho’s inability to track Zabaleta had gifted Man City control of the Boxing day clash, yet he was arguably Liverpool’s stand-out defensive player this time around, making more tackles than any other player on the pitch.
While Liverpool had pressed earlier on in the season, it was in a half-arsed manner organisationally that often didn’t really do much to curb the opposition’s attacking play. Now they pressed with much greater intensity and in numbers, ensuring the opposition didn’t have the time or space to build attacks. More importantly, taking such an intense approach meant Liverpool’s own deficiencies were covered up.
This meant that Gerrard could now play effectively at the base of the midfield. Early on in the previous season it had become clear that Gerrard no longer had the legs to play in more advanced roles, so he was moved back into the double pivot. He had improved his decision-making enough so that his passing range was an asset in the role but his positional ability was so poor that whoever played next to him had to do the defensive work of two men, leaving the team unbalanced and the defence constantly exposed.
Although he had missed the game at the Etihad through injury, Gerrard had continued into the autumn and winter of 2013 in the same role, with the same mix of creativity and defensive lapses. A shift in formation and style gave Gerrard a new lease of life in the tail end of the season though. Like Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, he was left alone at the base of the midfield while Coutinho and Henderson did the legwork in front of him. The heavy pressing meant that the opposition never had the time to take advantage of his poor positioning and his defensive duty was mainly as a second man to the duo in front of him -Â Coutinho or Henderson would be niggling away at the opposition player and he would step across to box them in further. What was most impressive was that Liverpool’s renewed title hopes seemed to give him back the lost energy that had required him to be moved back in the first place, charging around to win headers all over the midfield.
The problem is of course that it’s difficult to sustain this for 90 minutes, with gaps appearing as players tire and struggle to cover ground as quickly, which lead to both of City’s goals. With such a thin squad, Rodgers wouldn’t have been able to keep this up over the full season, and it is notable that Liverpool looked so defensively fragile in games against the likes of Swansea, where they played a more restrained version of this intense gameplan from the high-profile matches. When they were at full pelt, they were amazing, but anything less than that and they collapsed – the pressing was what held some of the more broken bits of the team in place.
Although many players had their positions individually tailored for them, the overall structure of the team wasn’t really based around any one player. Suarez was obviously the stand out performer but his strategic role didn’t really differ from Sturridge or Raheem Sterling as they switched between dropping deep, pulling wide and leading the line. Victor Moses could go into any of their positions and the team’s structure itself wouldn’t change, although obviously Liverpool’s play would suffer a dip in quality. Likewise, Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva both played in the various midfield roles in the other games and the faces of the defence regularly changed.
It wasn’t Gerrard’s slip or Crystal Palace’s comeback when Liverpool were trying to run up a two figure scoreline that cost Liverpool the league last season, it was the confused, unbalanced performances at home to Aston Villa or away to Hull City in a period were Liverpool were otherwise winning but not doing it well. Had they found this more cohesive style earlier and managed to keep fit for long enough, Liverpool may well have topped a poor league, but it was a Man City side that highlighted both the good and bad of Liverpool’s season that snatched ahead of them.