‘Make us dream’ read the banner on the Kop. And in those heady days of spring Liverpool fans dared to do just that, as the possibility of the title returning to Anfield turned from fanciful thinking to a genuine possibility.
Ultimately it was not to be, as Liverpool and their captain slipped up at just the wrong time. But amid the disappointment, a sense of perspective must be retained. If you had offered a Liverpool fan the prospect of a second place finish and a return to the Champions League at the start of the season, they would have bitten your hand off.
Much of the credit for their success must go to their progressive young manager, Brendan Rodgers. He has created a thrilling and highly-intoxicating brand of football built upon a direct, high tempo attacking game. As such, it represents a subtle but significant departure from the style of football Rodgers had previously espoused.
In his first season at Anfield he attempted to implement the possession based football that had won him so many admirers at Swansea. He spoke of his desire for Liverpool to control 65-70% of the possession in matches, and the ‘death by football’ that would be the result. Joe Allen, Rodgers’ trusted on-field lieutenant at Swansea was signed to help implement this vision for Liverpool. However, in his second season the Northern Irishman has showcased his tactical evolution.
Where once the idea was to build momentum slowly through a succession of short passes, now the aim was to get the ball up the field with as few passes as possible. The key point was to add greater speed to Liverpool’s attack.
Instead of becoming mired in horizontal passing in midfield, the focus was always to move the ball forwards. Possession was no longer the be all and end all. In 2012-3 Liverpool had an average of 57.2% of possession across the season, while this season they managed 55.8%. It is a small but telling drop.
An obsession with ball retention has been sacrificed in favour of a more counter-attacking style. The speed and intensity of these counter-attacks have been crucial in Liverpool’s changing fortunes this year. They have scored an astonishing nine goals on the counter-attack, four more than any other side. It completes a remarkable turnaround from 2012-3, when they only managed a single goal on the counter-attack all season. Their relentless pressing game harries opponents into making mistakes, and the Reds are then lighting quick on the break when they win back the ball.
Such a change in style has not come about by accident. Rodgers has tinkered with his philosophy in order to bring the best out of his mouth-watering attack of Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and Coutinho. These are players who thrive in space, and love to use their pace to run at defenders with their back to goal.
Rodgers has realised that this direct, high tempo brand of football is the best way to unleash the attacking potential of his team. Rather than fit players into systems, he has adapted his systems to suit his players. It highlight both an impressive tactical appreciation and a notable humility to adapt his footballing philosophy. Rodgers has proven himself to be one of the most astute and exciting young managers in the league, and maybe he could be the man to finally turn Liverpool fans’ dreams into reality.
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