Liverpool return to Premier League action this Saturday against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley Stadium in what marks the beginning of a hectic period of difficult fixtures for the Reds. Jurgen Klopp’s men currently occupy top spot in the league table and will face a gruelling few weeks defending their position against the likes of Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal while simultaneously contending with Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League.
It’s going to be a tough run for the Reds, one that will undoubtedly prove a stern test of their title-challenging credentials. Encouragingly, however, Liverpool have picked up twelve points from twelve after wins against West Ham, Crystal Palace, Brighton and Leicester and have yet to shift out of first gear. With only one goal conceded courtesy of an Alisson blunder, Klopp’s team have looked solid without being spectacular.
I’ve already taken a look at the 2008/09 team that came inches away from winning the league under Rafa Benitez – now it’s time to turn the microscope on Brendan Rodgers, who came close in 2014 to finally getting Liverpool over the line. How does the Northern Irishman and his squad compare with Klopp’s of this season?
Manager: Brendan Rodgers
Strongest starting XI: Mignolet, Johnson, Skrtel, Sakho, Enrique, Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge, Suarez.
While this squad was largely a cobbling-together of players from the Benitez (Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Lucas, Gerrard) and Kenny Dalglish (Enrique, Henderson, Suarez) eras, Brendan Rodgers had introduced some key players of his own (Mignolet, Sakho, Toure, Allen, Coutinho, Sturridge) and had stamped his stylistic imprint on the way his team played. Liverpool were all about possession-based, attractive football, with maestros like Coutinho and Gerrard feeding goal-hungry forwards Sturridge and Suarez.
Going forward Liverpool were electric, scoring a record 101 league goals (the highest for a runner-up) and doing so in style – the SAS (Suarez and Sturridge) were virtually unplayable at times, tearing opposition defences to shreds at will. However, old frailties still remained, with the Reds’ defence shipping goals aplenty. In the end, two crucial matches against Chelsea and Crystal Palace in the final weeks of the season cost Liverpool the title at the expense of Manchester City.
In goal, Simon Mignolet was a bit of an enigma. The Belgian saved a late penalty on the opening day to deny Stoke an equalizer, sparking hopes that he could be the solution to Liverpool’s goalkeeping problems. However, as the season wore on, he proved to be not as reliable as required from a title-winning side.
Mignolet probably wasn’t helped, however, by the defence in front of him. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique were both accomplished attacking full backs who sometimes neglected their defensive duties, often leaving their centre-backs exposed. Dalglish brought in Enrique because he was fast, and Benitez had persevered with Johnson because he lent to the wide attack – and both sometimes liked to do their own thing on the pitch. Supporting them were Martin Kelly, Aly Cissokho and Jon Flanagan, who were a mix of energetic, eager-to-please, and inexperienced.
Defending was Liverpool’s biggest downfall throughout the 2013/14 season. While their centre-backs were all decent, none of them were natural leaders like Carragher and Hyypia had been. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were better-suited to being apprentices, while Mamadou Sakho, though talented, was difficult to coach. Kolo Toure was the most experienced but lacked pace.
In midfield, Liverpool still relied too heavily on Steven Gerrard, whose powers were beginning to wane (though he still finished the season with the most assists in the league, of course). Jordan Henderson was developing fast as a player, however, and Lucas Leiva had become a reliable figure on the pitch. Joe Allen was a solid passer but never quite hit the heights intended for him by Rodgers. It was a pale comparison with the Alonso-Mascherano-Gerrard triangle but effective enough under their manager’s hands-on style of leadership.
Up front, however, Liverpool were a force to be reckoned with. Rodgers had brought in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge midway through the previous season for relatively-low transfer fees, and both had proved to be total bargains. The Little Magician was a revelation in the team, pulling strings in midfield and creating opportunities for the strikers to gobble up; Sturridge, disregarded at Chelsea, became a goal machine at Liverpool. Raheem Sterling, brought in and developed by Benitez and Dalglish, was lightning quick and became one of England’s brightest prospects while at Liverpool.
And then there was Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan was a monster in front of goal, finishing the season with the coveted Golden Boot after banging in 31 league goals, few of which were ever less than extraordinary. He turned defenders inside and out, terrorising opposition teams every week with his world-class skill on the ball. He remains one of Liverpool’s best ever strikers, eclipsing Torres who had come before him, which was no mean feat.
This was a Liverpool team who perhaps performed above their capabilities, elevated by the genius of Suarez and the ongoing inspiration of Gerrard. While they fell short at the last, they finished second in the league and qualified for the Champions League for the first season in a long time. The following season was one to forget, but Rodgers certainly took Liverpool close to something special that year.
How does the 13/14 team compare with this season’s squad?
I won’t rehash the summary of our current squad from Part One of this opinion piece (have a read if you like), other than to say that four games in, Liverpool look defensively better than they have in years and are still banging in the goals without looking overly brilliant just yet. Apart from one mistake resulting from over-confidence, Alisson has been solid in goal and the centre-back pairing of Joe Gomez and Virgil van Dijk has looked superb. Naby Keita will undoubtedly become a vital cog in our midfield machine while Xherdan Shaqiri and Fabinho will get more game time over the next few weeks.
By way of comparison, our options in goal are clearly improved – Mignolet’s still there as a Number Two (not the worst one to have) and we have talented Academy players waiting in the wings. I’d expect to see Alisson become one of the top keepers in the league by the end of the season.
Our defence is massively better than that of the 2013/14 season. Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are far more reliable defensively than Johnson and Enrique were, while Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno are stronger backup options than Kelly and Cissokho. Our centre-backs – Gomez, Lovren, Matip and van Dijk – look solid, with van Dijk being the key standout. The Dutchman has been world class since coming to Liverpool and his impact on the defence is clear to see. While I think Liverpool will bring in another centre-back next year we are, for now, sound at the back.
Our midfield is also vastly improved (with the exception of Gerrard). Henderson has gone on to become a fine captain who is inexplicably criticised at every turn by a section of the fanbase, while James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum and Keita are a perfect blend of combativeness, intelligence and desire. I’d take Klopp’s current midfield over Rodgers’ any day.
Going forward, finally, the two teams are actually quite comparable. Both feature a trio of world-class attackers (Suarez-Sturridge-Coutinho versus Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino), though our current squad appears to have the edge in terms of depth, with Adam Lallana, Shaqiri, Sturridge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (eventually) ready to enter the fray. I feel like Salah and Suarez bear many similarities, as do Mane and the Sturridge of 2014.
The Brendan Rodgers-managed team of 2013/14 was a force to be reckoned with, giving us some incredible games that season. Liverpool were virtually unstoppable going forward when the SAS were in full flow, but defensive frailties ultimately cost them the title.
Our current squad feels more complete and capable of both unlocking an opposition defence and shutting out an attack, with leaders in every phase of the pitch. This Liverpool squad are primed and ready to build upon last season’s excellent campaigns in the Premier League and Europe.
It remains to be seen whether or not Klopp’s men can go the distance this season – let’s withhold any further judgement for now and just enjoy the Reds as they start to pick up pace over the coming weeks.