Working in sales in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s I was given a book by an inspirational American called Napoleon Hill. “Think and Grow Rich” contains the famous line – “Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve”.
This was continuously repeated as a mantra from managers to get their protégés to sell more with a strap-line along the lines of ‘the only person holding you back is yourself’. As a Liverpool supporter from the mid-1970’s onwards this seemed to fit with my belief of my team’s ability to win almost anything it competed in. It took a little while to quite understand and realise the invincibility had gone throughout the Souness era, to become an almost ‘pleased to be in with a chance of winning a trophy’ feeling from then on. But in the last few months things have changed.
I wrote an article a week or two ago on how I believed Liverpool would finish third. All season I feel Manchester City and Chelsea both have bigger, better squads with more depth than Liverpool’s and in reality what I couldn’t perceive as happening is that they would lose the title. My article hinged on both teams needing to drop points somewhere in the run-in to allow Liverpool in. Liverpool have the luxury of still to meet both sides at Anfield where they seem imperious at present. For Chelsea, a Liverpool win could be enough to be overhauled by them, but for City they needed to lose points elsewhere as well, otherwise defeat at Anfield wouldn’t stop them winning their second title in three years.
Last weekend, I believe both City and Chelsea lost the title.
Now of course there’s still a lot of football to play and many things can happen. I cannot remember a season quite like this perhaps since the days of the early 1990’s when Manchester United seemed to stutter to believe they themselves could be champions. The United of last season would probably win the title this year as well, albeit they relied heavily on Robin van Persie but this illustrates further how City and Chelsea have dropped points at ridiculous times and in the end it may cost them. Liverpool too, have not been perfect all year and those who witnessed the West Brom, Aston Villa and Hull City matches would testify to that theory. But I saw something in Brendan Rodgers’ first season which gives me confidence for the run-in this time round.
Liverpool finished the season strongly, and remained fit and healthy to the line. From the final game of the season I really felt we could’ve gone on for another 4-5 matches. You don’t often get that at the end of a long, and sometimes stressful, season. But Rodgers handling of Steven Gerrard was key to this, although he missed the final few matches there was enough confidence in the team to put some good performances together despite the absence of their talismanic captain. Don’t forget they were also missing their star striker, Luis Suarez.
I likened Liverpool last season to a recovering alcoholic. Despite one good performance we were never far away from falling off the wagon, and there were plenty of instances of that happening. Aston Villa at home, Southampton away, were just two examples where we seemed to be in good form coming into the game yet seemed to have forgotten how to play together when we finally got there. Things seemed to be so fragile you could only really look one day at a time. Few outside of Liverpool FC understand what the club had become under the previous regime, a bitter, spiteful organisation where neither of the owners were speaking to each other, let alone the management and where the management seemed more concerned with getting one over on their employer than worrying about their players. FSG changed all that and Kenny Dalglish changed all that. The right man at the right time.
I’m perfectly happy to admit I didn’t feel Brendan Rodgers was the right man for Liverpool, I felt the club was too big for him. Even throughout last season where you could see a project starting to take shape I still couldn’t see how he would negotiate European competition when it came to it. This season we have gone one better although I still feel the squad needs strengthening to compete in the Champions League, but Rodgers’ tactical nous and coaching is really bringing out the best in the squad.
So what do I mean about a title lost? There have been several examples over the past 10-15 years where I feel clubs threw away the title rather than someone like Manchester United winning it. This season may end up being the same and it is Liverpool who will benefit from their rivals profligacy. They are the team bang in form and few can see other teams containing them. In fact, what seems to be the common theory is that it is only themselves who could stop them.
The way Liverpool are playing at the moment is the reason for their success and other teams just don’t seem to be able to work them out. Rodgers continually changes things too, just to further flummox the opposition. When Everton came to Anfield they pushed up, believing squeezing the space in midfield was the key, but a ball over the defence for speed-merchants like Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge to run onto was just too great a gift to give up. When Arsenal arrived they were set deeper but sat off Liverpool, who pressed them relentlessly, believing it would rattle The Gunners. It did and we were 4 goals up in twenty minutes. Manchester United tried to use two midfield players wide on each side but both of them were outnumbered by Henderson and Allen combining with the full-backs. Tottenham arrived with a rigid 4-4-2 formation but Rodgers use of Henderson and Gerrard either side of the opposition’s midfield 4 just causes havoc. Add to this the desire and sheer will to win of both Suarez and Gerrard and you have a pretty potent recipe for success.
Raheem Sterling too, is a player who has really developed his game and Rodgers has done well to marshall him through the season. The use of Sterling just behind the front two against United was another reason for the home side’s impotence. It is Sterling’s passing which has impressed me the most and we had further evidence of that against Tottenham on Sunday. He is not afraid to sweep a long diagonal ball from his own half to either Suarez or Sturridge, which makes his presence in his own half a dangerous one. If he cannot see the outlet up front, he can then murder the defence with his pace.
Having said all this, there are things which could derail Liverpool’s title ambitions. Gerrard is a yellow card away from ban and until the City and Chelsea games are navigated he won’t want to fall foul of that (no apologies for the pun). Gerrard has been immense in the last few weeks and often remains a menacing figure hanging back as Liverpool pile forward with the opposition just praying he doesn’t join in. You would say an injury to a key player could affect things but you would probably need both Sturridge and Suarez to be out for it to have an effect on the goalscoring.
After last weekend’s results things are in our hands and for an older fan like me who just used to expect to win trophies each year we have had to get used to that not being the case. But as the sign says at Anfield, “Anything is possible for those who believe”.