Thursday, March 6, 2014

Liverpool's Transformation: From European Outcasts to One of the Most Attractive in Europe

The last time Liverpool played in the UEFA Champions League was in the 2009-10 season when they were eliminated in the Group Stage of the competition. Even though they managed to reach the semi-finals of the Europa League that season by virtue of their third placed finish in their group, they have been away from Europe's elite club competition since then.

Steven Gerrard
Steven Gerrard deserves to play in the Champions League

In fact, in the next four seasons, Liverpool have managed to qualify for the Europa League only twice - the 2010-11 season and the 2012-13 season -  and both times they were knocked out of the tournament early in the knockout stages. For a club that has won five Champions League titles, more than any other English club, that is completely unacceptable.

Premier League Goals scored by Liverpool

Liverpool at that time were playing some uninspiring football which hardly deserved a place in the top level of competition that the Champions League is. In fact, Liverpool managed to some how lock themselves into a downward spiral that made matters worse with every passing game. The goals dried up. The play looked labored. All of a sudden, the team that had torn its opponents apart in the 2008-09 season seemed to have fallen apart.

Following a few seasons of mediocrity inspired by dull and listless football, the time Liverpool have spent in wilderness, away from Champions League football is finally set to come to an end. 

Team Statistics
Team Statistics from Top 5 European leagues (Source: WhoScored)
The fluency has returned to the side and the team is now playing some attractive attacking football. In fact, they are currently the joint second highest scorer in the top 5 European leagues. Looking at the ratings, this season Liverpool have been one of the top performers across Europe in the Top 5 European leagues. They have been scoring goals for fun and dispatching opponents with consummate ease. They went to Tottenham and handed them a 5-0 thrashing, humiliated cross-town rivals Everton 4-0 at Anfield and put five goals past title contenders Arsenal.

Scoring goals has become second nature to the team, and much of it is down to Liverpool's forward line who have simply been outstanding this season. The partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge is yet to fully find its feet and yet the two of them have managed to score 42 league goals between them. To put this number in perspective, only four teams have managed to score more goals this season that these two have managed. 

Infographic: SAS in action this season
There have been arguments between the two on the pitch and the understanding between the two is still work in progress, but at times, they show an understanding which is nothing short of telepathic. They are both willing to work their socks off for the team when needed and  they take turns to keep working away at the opposition defense. 

However, what makes them so lethal is the fact that they are always willing to make those runs in behind defenses, making it very difficult to play against them. Holding a high line against them can be tantamount to suicide, but then again, if you drop off, they will kill you with their slick movement and sweet interplay. To quote Steven Gerrard: 
"If teams want to play 2 v 2 against Sturridge and Suarez - all the best!" 
Suarez leads the race for European Golden Shoe
Perhaps the reason that the duo have suddenly become so lethal has to do quite some bit with Suarez reigning in his antics on the pitch. He has come back from the 10-match suspension that he was handed at the end of last season for biting Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic and been simply superb in his performances.

He has been scoring goals on a consistent basis this season and the month of December was especially prolific for him as he managed to score 10 goals. That included a incredible performance against Norwich City in which he scored four fabulous goals, each of them them equally brilliant in its own right.

Other players too have been performing very well, but have perhaps been overshadowed by SAS's performances. However, they have been equally important to the performances that Liverpool have produced this season. Steven Gerrard has excelled in a deeper, more defensive role that allows him more time on the ball, and it has certainly added new wind to his sails near the twilight of his career.

Defender Martin Skrtel, who endured a tough last season, has been a rock at the back barring a couple of errors and has singlehandedly kept the opposition at bay at times. Jordan Henderson has been a revelation and his performances in a dynamic role as a box-to-box midfielder has earned him plaudits from all corners. He certainly looks at home in this Liverpool setup, as does young winger Raheem Sterling who has been extremely consistent in his performances this season and has worked well with the SAS partnership in the final third.

Brendan Rodgers the man behind the transformation
Amidst the players grabbing all the attention through their eye-catching displays, one man has largely been key in the transformation that has taken place at the team in the last couple of years. Manager Brendan Rodgers arrived at the club with a very clear philosophy - death by football - and tried to implement it in his first season in charge.

However, he soon realized that it would not work at Liverpool. The team neither had the players capable of making that philosophy work, neither is it the sort of football the Liverpool fans want to see. So very subtly, he has changed the focus from hogging the possession to doing more with the ball when in possession.

This simple change has worked wonders for the team as evidenced by the outstanding performances Liverpool have bee putting out on a consistent basis. Liverpool no longer play back pass after back pass just to keep possession of the ball. Now the focus has shifted to playing incisive balls as often as possible, even if it means ceding possession to the opposition. In fact, Liverpool surprisingly have at times had less possession that some of the visiting teams.

Liverpool's willingness to play an open game has meant that a game involving them is rarely boring, and most certainly promises to involve goals, and lots of them. With entertainment guaranteed while Liverpool are playing, they have easily become one of the most popular and entertaining teams around Europe. While the team still has some way to go till they are able to go toe to toe with some of the heavyweights of European football, the performances suggest that they are headed in the right direction.

Although they are currently second in the league in terms of goal difference, and are unlikely to win the league, Champions League football for next season is all but assured, and Liverpool as the dark horses can feel free to give the favorites a run for their money with 10 games to go. Whatever may be the outcome, the winds of change seem to be blowing in the right direction.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
Keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again 
Don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin' 
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they, they are a-changin'