Liverpool courtesy of their 4-1 win against West Ham on Saturday have climbed up to the second place in the Premier League. It is their best start to a league season in many years and while they are far from being a complete team, manager Brendan Rodgers has somehow managed to keep the side going from strength to strength.
There is a genuine lack of squad depth while the side is over-reliant on individual brilliance mainly. Liverpool’s only advantage, and that is a huge advantage, over their rivals is – they don’t have any side distractions in the form of European commitments, hence Rodgers can field his best 11 week-in-week-out, giving his players adequate rest.
The Reds are only five points behind league leaders Arsenal. They have won all their home games bar one; Luis Suarez is the top scorer in the league, Steven Gerrard is the top joint-assist provider; second highest goal tally behind Manchester City with 32 goals – there are aplenty reasons to be cheer about. Yet, doubts persist.
The epicenter of the doubt starts with none other than Liverpool’s manager Brendan Rodgers himself. The same manager who was an advocate of the death-by-football philosophy, who ensured Liverpool play the most attractive football in the league despite poor results, has suddenly abandoned his system, and instead injected a hybrid-mix that has left many purists concerned about Liverpool’s true progress.
At times Liverpool have played cavalier football, while other times they just managed to carve out results, by winning it ugly, unconvincingly. This dichotomy (not visible under Rodgers in the first half of last season) has given birth to a question – are the Reds over-achieving this season?
The league table only reflects the good work they’ve put in. Liverpool are 11 points ahead after 15 Premier League games than last season. While, the over-emphasis on pass and ball retention has dropped a little, but where Liverpool have really improved is shots on target this season.
If we compare, Liverpool’s stats with leaders Arsenal, we can see, the Reds (17.1; 256 shots) have a better shots/game ratio than the Gunners (13.9; 208). Most importantly, the shot on target/game is also higher – Liverpool (6.5; 97 shots) compared to Arsenal (5.9; 88 shots).
The lion-share of credit goes to Luis Suarez for that. With 14 goals in 10 games, he alone contributes 6.1 shots per game. Ball retention is the primary strategy that Rodgers preached last season and if we see the stats, we will find, the Reds haven’t done badly in that area as well. Liverpool and Arsenal both enjoy 55.2% average possession, while the Reds averaged 84.6% passing accuracy, slightly less than Arsenal with 85.2% accuracy.
The only major worry for the Reds is their defence that is leaking in goals in almost every games (13.5 shots conceded per game, compared to Arsenal’s 11.4). Post September, they have only managed just one clean sheet, while have conceded 13 away goals.
At this stage, I am not too worried about Rodgers’ abandonment on his consecrated tactical philosophy. Probably, he felt that he doesn’t have the right players with him at the moment that can execute his philosophy of death-by-football and that it can wait. Primary task is to get the best out of current players and for that he must ensure Liverpool win more games and stay competitive in the league.
They are just doing what they’re expected of. They are not dropping points against weaker oppositions, strikers are more clinical than previous season and results are coming on their way. They have simply kept the basics right while probably there is a belief in the team that they can grind out results when things are not going right.
December will provide an acid test for the Reds as they face the likes of Spurs, Manchester City and Chelsea. If Rodgers’ men can carve out positive results out of these games, the confidence will be sky high that will propel them to finish within top four. And that by no means is an over-achievement.