History is part of the reason why we waste our time watching sports. The past, matters. The past often becomes a burden, especially when your history is rich and storied such as the case of Liverpool FC.
The Reds have long prided themselves on their accomplishments: 18 First Division titles, seven FA Cups and five European Cups/Champions League trophies. Lately that history has hovered like a weight on the club, which has never won a league title since the inception of the Premier League era in 1992-93 and have been past by bitter rival Manchester United for the most top division league titles in English soccer history.
Since finishing second under Rafa Benitez in 2008-09, Liverpool’s league finishes are: seventh, sixth, eighth, seventh. Not good. The Reds haven’t graced the Champions League since 2009-10. The club hit its modern nadir in 2010 with the disastrous Roy Hodgson era which produced a 13-9-9 overall record.
Are sunnier days ahead for Liverpool, which sits second — two points behind leaders Arsenal — in the current EPL table after 11 games ahead of Saturday’s Merseyside Derby (7:45 a.m., NBCSN) against rival Everton?
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Reds fan, given the last couple seasons, odds are you remain decidedly pessimistic. The team has teased too long, given you way too many false springs to let a solid 11-game run override the past. A neutral observer like myself? I scan over the Premier League table and notice that presumptive preseason favorites — Chelsea and Manchester City — haven’t yet clicked. As I wrote last week before the international break, nobody seems all that great this season. It’s a big bunched up, morass. Eventually separation will occur. Why can’t Liverpool be one of those teams to break away? At the very minimum Brendan Rodgers’ club has enough pieces to finish in the Top Four and a trip back to the Champions League.
Liverpool’s lousy 2012-13 helps, in a sense, for this year since it doesn’t have to worry about competing in Europe, unlike their rivals. Obviously you want to play in the Champions League, or swallow your pride and play in the Europa League but less games on the calendar, theoretically, helps keep the team fresher and focused. Liverpool’s senior team isn’t very deep, so dealing with the nuisance of the Europa League in the midweek would make mounting a challenge on the Top Four more difficult.
Let’s get to the meat-and-potatoes of any arguments about the merits of Liverpool: the Luis Suarez/Daniel Sturridge partnership in attack. The English press have dubbed it the “SAS,” which is such a dopey name I’ll refrain from commenting or repeating.
Both players already have eight goals in the league, which ties them with Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero for tops in the division. Suarez has piled up those goals in only six games, serving his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic last spring.
A storyline in recent years — for soccer geeks anyway — is the death of the strike partnership, since fewer and fewer teams play a classic 4-4-2 formation. Rodgers is opting for both Suarez and Sturridge, playing a three man defense in the back. The two striker system so far produced four wins, one draw and a loss to Arsenal. Those games have produced 16 goals, despite the 2-0 loss to the Gunners.
Sturridge, 24, was a coup for Liverpool in last year’s January window with 10 goals in Red — one off his career best league total. True, he’s off to a hot start, but finishing around 18-20 goals come May is realistic so long as he can stay on the field and avoid a physical burnout.
The real question is Suarez, who’s managed to get even better than his previous, controversy-filled campaign which produced 23 goals.
Right now Suarez is King Midas. Every touch seemingly turns to gold, but eventually Suarez is going to come back to earth. Let’s look at his shot rate during previous EPL seasons with Liverpool:
- 2010-11: 12 games, 55 shots, 23 shots-on-goal, 4 goals
- 2011-12: 29 games, 120 shots, 48 shots-on-goal, 11 goals
- 2012-13: 33 games, 187 shots, 72 shots-on-goal, 23 goals
- 2013-14: 6 games, 36 shots, 15 shots-on-goal, six goals.
His first three years in England Suarez scored on 10 percent of his total shots and about 26 percent from shots on target — plagued by hitting the woodwork early and often. This year those figures are 16 percent and 40 percent. He’ll regress but, there’s always the outside chance he puts together one of those seasons and finishes with 25+ goals, carrying the team back over the Top Four threshold. Robin van Persie’s lethal instinct in front of goal carried a pedestrian — by its standards — Manchester United over the line for a league title in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season.
Both Manchester United in 2010-11 (Dimitar Berbatov 20, Chicharito 13) and Manchester City in 2011-12 (Aguero 23, Edin Dzeko 14, Mario Balotelli 13) won EPL titles with multiple players in the Top 10 of goals scored. Suarez and Sturridge might not be able to do that alone, but it bodes well for a place in the Top Four. When Liverpool last won a League title in 1990 John Barnes scored 22 goals, while Ian Rush added 18. Strikers alone won’t win you the league, but goals do win you individual games.
Liverpool still needs a lot more from the rest of its team. My old blog friend Nate from the best Liverpool-centric blog out there, Oh You Beauty, passed along this is the point-per-game averages for players who’ve made 30+ starts under Rodgers: Luis Enrique 1.87 ppg; Lucas 1.88; Glenn Johnson 1.79; Steven Gerrard 1.66; Daniel Agger 1.65; Suarez 1.56; Martin Skrtel 1.56. That list doesn’t include the ever-improving 23-year-old Jordan Henderson, rapidly becoming a key cog in the midfield at Anfield.
Enrique is sidelined indefinitely after knee surgery, while Lucas and Agger remain injury concerns given their histories. There’s also the worry about team width. Liverpool might start Saturday’s game at Goodison park with Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas, and Philippe Coutinho. On-loan left back Aly Cissokho has been poor in Enrique’s stead, leaving the club without much of an alternative. Rodgers tried Jon Flanagan vs. Arsenal and was summarily filleted for the choice. It means Suarez and Sturridge are most their own creators for goals.
If Liverpool want to keep up the push, it needs to sign some cover in January across the field. The Reds don’t even need to hit home runs like they did with Sturridge, a few capable, able bodies will work. Liverpool’s transfer activity is much improved from the days of signing Paul Konchesky. Grabbing hulking defender Mamadou Sakho from PSG late in the summer window was a coup, especially if it keeps Skrtel on the bench more often.
There’s always the Gerrard conundrum. The Liverpool legend’s time is winding down … eventually. He’s been an ever-present, playing all but 27 minutes so far. Gerrard is a icon. He is the definitive Liverpool player this century, but shouldn’t guarantee he must play every minute of every game going forward, especially at 33 years old. Rodgers will have to be delicate.
Favorable scheduling sets up Liverpool for an epic end to 2013. Following Saturday’s derby, Liverpool’four of the club’s next five are against teams in the bottom half. To close December play at Manchester City and then at Chelsea three days apart.
Despite how great Suarez might be this season, Liverpool isn’t going to win the title and saying so definitively on Nov. 22 would be foolish. Writing them off based on history of the last couple seasons might only be slightly less so. … (Everton 1, Liverpool 1)
Two Other Games to Watch:
* Arsenal vs. Southampton — (Saturday, 10 a.m., NBSCN) An unlikely first vs. third … showdown? Both teams play attractive, passing soccer, which likely ensures we’re in a for a dud. (It’s how things work.) This game is also all about under-appreciated “Big Lug” strikers in Olivier Giroud and Rickie Lambert. Southampton’s possession game means its faced the few shots on target in the league through 11 matches. Mauricio Pochettino is an aggressive manager, so will he set the Saints up to attack the Gunners? Arsenal do have some injury concerns (Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey) off the international break. Injuries and Arsenal, as we’ve seen recently, go about as well together as mayonnaise and marinara sauce. … Arsenal 2, Southampton 1
* Manchester City vs. Tottenham — (Sunday, 8:30 a.m., NBCSN) I saw this on Twitter (can’t recall who posted it), Spurs scored nine goals in a win over Wigan on Nov. 22, 2009. Through 11 games this season they have, yep, nine goals. Danish midfiedler Christian Eriksen will be out a couple weeks, adding to Spurs’ troubles. City are still nearly unbeatable at home, meaning it will get by with Vincent Kompany and David Silva on the sidelines. … Manchester City 3, Spurs 0.