Liverpool’s 0-0 draw to Arsenal on Monday night highlighted the improvements that Brendan Rodgers has made within just four months. In the corresponding fixture last season, the Reds were thrashed 4-1 at the Emirates and threw all chances of a top-four finish out of the window.
Liverpool had their chances in north London earlier this week - Petr Cech’s fine save to stop Christian Benteke being the highlight - and if they had have grabbed the lead, the game could have been so much different.
4-1 was an almighty scoreline 16 weeks ago; however, there were some parallels to the closer clash this campaign.
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When the game was locked at 0-0 back in April, Lazar Markovic had a wonderful one-on-one chance to give Liverpool the lead. Instead of shooting, the Serbia international attempted to pass to Raheem Sterling but the ball was too heavily weighted and went out for a goal-kick.
Since that moment it seems that Markovic has become a forgotten man at Anfield. For Liverpool’s final seven games of the 2014/15 Premier League season, Markovic did not make a single start and come off the bench just three times. In two games, he wasn’t even part of Rodgers’ 18 man squad. He was also substituted at half-time during the FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa.
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Prior to his arrival at the Merseyside outfit, Markovic had been a prominent member of the Benfica squad who landed the Portuguese treble in 2014 and inspired them into the final of the Europa League.
Markovic missed the final due to suspension and Benfica lost to Sevilla on penalties after the game finished 0-0 following extra-time. Many claim if the former Partizan winger was involved then Benfica could have ended their 42 year wait to win a European trophy.
For £20 million at just 20-years-old, Liverpool fans were immediately sceptical about Markovic’s arrival. Sure, he had a stellar reputation in Europe but many questioned how he would become accustomed to the physicality of the English game.
For Rodgers and club owners, Fenway Sports Group, however, Markovic was the perfect fit. He met the ideology of nurturing youthful prospects into their full potential as well as being accustomed to playing in Europe.
On Markovic’s arrival, Rodgers said;
“This is an exciting signing for us and one that improves our squad, in terms of attacking options, for the coming season.
“Lazar is flexible to play a number of positions, but I like the way he attacks games and is always positive and looking to make something happen. He will fit in with the way we play at Liverpool.
Markovic had been chased by a number of top European clubs before he decided Anfield was his preferred destination. Compatriot and Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic had played alongside the Cacak native for a short while at Benfica and spoke about the youngster in the highest regard.
“What can I say about our Markovic? It was excellent playing with this fantastic kid for six months,” Matic said.
It was a big move for Markovic to come to England at just 20. No friends, no family, a completely different country to Portugal and a new language to learn; it was always going to be thorny for him to settle down.
His early appearances for Liverpool were far from inspiring but that was credited for him settling in on Merseyside and becoming familiar with the pace of the Premier League.
However, as the calendar ticked over and the mid-season come, excuses could not be made anymore.
For the sheer talent that Markovic had displayed in Portugal, where he was renowned for his blistering pace and ability to run past full-backs with such venom, he was playing with reservation and simplicity.
It wasn’t often he’d do something wrong but, for a £20 million signing, much more was expected. From a ferocious rattlesnake ready to hunt its prey, Markovic had turned into a corn snake that desperately searched for the cover of the wilderness.
Rodgers defended his player and insisted he was taking time to adjust.
“With young Markovic it's taking time with him,” Rodgers said midway through October 2014.
“He's in a new country and he's getting used to a new way of life and he's just getting accustomed to the physicality of this league having come from Portugal where it's totally different.”
Even in the Champions League, however, when there were no excuses to be made, he displayed few moments of magic. The 1-0 loss to away FC Basel in October was a particularly lacklustre performance and Kopites were beginning to lose their patience with him.
Things did eventually click for Markovic. When the Reds found themselves 1-0 down to FC Basel at Anfield in their final game of Group B in the European Cup and needed three points to surpass into the knockout stages, Rodgers called upon Markovic off the bench at half-time
Aggression was the word the Liverpool manager emphasised over and over at the interval and gave the number 50 a license to do what he wanted when he had the ball at his feet.
There were puzzled faces when Markovic emerged from the tunnel after the break but he soon turned negative expressions into delight. He completely changed the dynamic of how Liverpool played.
He injected pace and hostility when going forward and portrayed all the talents he did at Benfica. Playing right-wing, he added width and also linked well with the overlapping runs of Glen Johnson when he cut inside. His performance gave genuine belief that the Reds could flip the game on its head.
Unfortunately, Markovic had a moment of madness when he needlessly threw an arm at Basel defender Behrang Safari and was sent-off after just 15 minutes on the pitch. A silly move on his behalf but he showed he could come well.
For a few weeks, Markovic had a decent spell in Rodgers’ side. He scored his first goal for the Reds in the 3-1 away defeat of Bournemouth in the League Cup and the only goal in Liverpool’s 1-0 victory against Sunderland at the Stadium Of Light as well as rattling the woodwork that day.
However, after a respectable string of performances, Markovic soon went back into his shell.
After Christmas, Rodgers switched to playing a 3-5-2 formation that included wing-backs. Markovic was given the role of right wing-back and it’s fair to say he never fit the formation. He again was showing his hesitation and unwillingness to be aggressive.
Playing at wing-back meant he could not influence the game like he wanted to. As Liverpool laboured through matches in the second-half of the season, Rodgers either didn’t start Markovic or substituted him off at half-time.
It’s difficult to blame for Markovic for his performances at wing-back. He is a through and through attacker who only knows how to get forward. The likelihood is that before joining Liverpool, he had never been asked to defend in his life unless his team were clutching on for a result. Otherwise, he’s had the license to get forward, much like he did during his successful stint against Basel.
For Liverpool’s three opening games of the 2015/16 season, Markovic has failed to be included in Rodgers’ 18 man squad. He’s seen Jordon Ibe and Roberto Firmino favoured instead and it’ll be tough for him to win his place back.
Markovic will likely play his part in the Europa League given his experience in the competition but he’ll want to be playing on a weekly basis in the top flight.
Given Rodgers’ switch back to 4-3-3 it would be well worth giving Markovic another shot. With Nathaniel Clyne always keen to get forward, Markovic could well build a rapport he showed with Johnson against Basel.
Having to forget about his defensive duties will mean he has a license to roam and to fully commit on the surge forward. Of course, he’ll still have to track back but it’ll be nowhere as bad with more cover now available.
Ibe’s performances against Stoke City, Bournemouth and Arsenal weren’t the greatest and Firmino still has plenty of work to do. If Markovic impresses when given the chance - which he must do - then he could well win a place in Rodgers' team.