It’s been a long season for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool Football Club and it’s only just over halfway through. The Reds have played over thirty-five competitive games in the campaign to date and could, potentially, play another twenty-five matches before the season’s end. Two of the most important of these games, however, come in the space of the next four days, against Arsenal and Manchester City. The performances turned in, away, at these two top six sides could go a long way towards defining the remainder of the season for Rodgers and the Anfield club.
So far the 2012/13 has been a bit of a mixed bag as far as results and performances have been concerned. A difficult start to the campaign saw Rodger’s side fail to pick up a victory until the season was several weeks old. Since then, the trend has been that of slow, steady improvement, however there have been a number of occasions on which that trend has been bucked, noticeably against the teams in the top half of the league.
Whilst Liverpool under Rodgers have begun to see off the teams which traditionally occupy the lower half of the Barclays Premier League on a regular basis, the so called “bigger” clubs have posed a much tougher test, one which has found the Reds wanting on every occasion so far this season. Defeating the “lesser” teams with regularity is no mean feat for a Liverpool boss, many of those that occupied the hotseat before Rodgers have struggled to do so with any degree of consistency. (Dalglish, Hodgson and even Benitez often came unstuck against teams that they were expected to roll over, particularly at home – a glance back to last season is all that’s needed to remind oneself of that truth.) However, simply becoming consistent “flat track bullies”, while a good first step, is never going to be enough for Liverpool, nor should it be.
Rodgers has begun to succeed in at least one of his stated aims, that of returning Anfield to its former fortress-like glory. The Reds have already picked up as many home wins this season as they managed in the entirety of the last campaign and, as mentioned above, the team has begun to confidently dispatch the weaker sides; now however, it’s time to take the next step.
In the next four days, Liverpool fans will be able to see just how realistic a push for a European place or even a Champions’ League berth really is. If the club is to mount an honest challenge for the top six, or even the top four, then Rodgers’s side must look to pick up some points from the next two games. They must look to take points off the likes of Arsenal, who they’ll be going head to head with in the race to the finish, and they must show that they’re capable of at least challenging the likes of Manchester City, not only for their European aspirations, but also for the fans and for the players’ own self-confidence.
Both Arsenal and Manchester City came to Anfield earlier in the season, City left with one point after a Martin Skrtel error allowed them back into the game; Arsenal left with all three points after a lacklustre display from the Reds gifted them an all too easy victory. If this Liverpool side can step up and exact a measure of revenge, by picking up at least two points from the return fixtures, then the rest of the season could shape up nicely. If not however, then things could take a turn for the worse.
Brendan Rodgers has faced criticism from a small but vocal section of the LFC support since he took over (largely unfairly although he’s not been without fault), however with the Cup defeat to Oldham still fresh in every fan’s mind, this criticism has gotten a little louder in the last few days. A victory in either of the two upcoming Premier League fixtures would go a long way towards quietening, if not silencing these critics, even a couple of away draws would be a platform to build on. However, a failure to pick up at least two points will hear the dissenting voices grow louder still and could well swell the ranks of the “Rodgers Out” crowd. This is the last thing that Liverpool needs as a football club, the fans have been divided for too long, what’s needed is something to unite behind and points in the next two matches could be just the ticket.
It was broadly accepted by most intelligent Liverpool fans that this season would be, if not a write off, than certainly a transitional season in which progress would be the by-word and, as long as this advancement was visible, the season could be considered a success. Whilst many still believe this to be the case, it’s hard to sit through a season where each step forward seems to be followed by an equally large step back.
Defeat to Oldham in the FA Cup was not a huge catastrophe for the club, whilst it was a massive disappointment for myself and every other fan, it’s safe to say that it wasn’t top of the manager’s nor the owners’ wish-lists for the season. Mistakes were made in selection for me, however with two such huge games on the horizon, the manager had little choice other than to name the side that he did and, in the end, the players let him down.
Apart from anything else, the defeat highlighted the deficiencies in certain areas of the squad, particularly the back five and the centre of midfield, and these areas will have to be strengthened in the summer. As far as being a marker for the rest of the season though, it served as little use. With Stoke having already been played twice, the Reds are unlikely to face such a physical approach before next season, nor is Brendan Rodgers likely to field such a hotch-potch of a side in the near future.
The league form is key, that’s what did for Kenny Dalglish and that’s what Rodgers will be judged on. So far, progress has been made and the stats bear that out. Liverpool are six points better off this year than they were last year from the equivalent fixtures, they are scoring more goals, they are winning at home and they are not losing as many games. However, many fans see performances, and especially results, against the “big” teams as the marker against which any progress should be measured and this is an area where the Reds have regressed. If Rodgers wants to earn the respect of his critics amongst the fanbase, taking at least three points from the next two games would be a great way to start and the perfect tonic to help everybody forget about Oldham.
Both images by Ben Sutherland.