Experiencing the first genuine title challenge since 1997, Liverpool are back as serious contenders for the English crown. Not only did they challenge Manchester United from start to finish, even spending a few weeks as table toppers, they also finished the season with massive 86 points, which is a club record. To put things into perspective, 86 points would have won them the league in any country except Spain and of course England. Judging a team’s strength based on points amassed in one particular season is not an accurate science, but what it can tell us is that in a season of 38 games Liverpool can put together a series of results good enough to win the title.
The experience of coming so close to winning their first title since 1990 means that Liverpool will not allow themselves to go backwards this season. They did that in 1998, in 2003 and in 2007. After amassing an impressive number of points the year before, each time they went backwards the subsequent season. However, whereas the achievements in those years were built on shaky teams this time around it’s a different story. This team is not an overachieving one. This team got the 2nd place and 86 points on merit.
Liverpool’s big strength at this point in time is their experienced, yet fresh starting 11, which was one of the key reasons behind last season’s title challenge as well. If we look at what Liverpool’s starting eleven will be like at the start of the season in August, it shows that the youngest player is 24 and only one player is over 30 and that’s a central defender. What this means is that there are no inexperienced or unfulfilled potentials in the team. There are no kids that need to be carried by older players and there should be less inconsistent performances. What “finished article” players do better than their juniors is adapt to whatever the circumstances on the pitch. During unusual and unexpected moments in a given game, like being a goal down at home to bottom of the table team, a more mature group of players is less likely to panic and freeze up. They’re less inclined to try and force plays that don’t seem likely to come off. Instead they can regroup quicker as a unit and look for alternative solutions. Mature players can also last the distance of a 9 months season better than a hopeful 20 year old and this automatically means a more settled team.
While a team’s defence is always the platform, you rarely talk about the back four actually winning the title. However, Liverpool’s defence could be the difference between challenging for the title and winning it. Why? Simply because it looks like Liverpool’s back four will consist of better ball players compared to last season. Johnson looks likely to replace Arbeloa on the right while Agger is back to give Liverpool another attacking dimension from the back. Whoever is chosen on the left, whether it’s Dossena, Aurelio or Insua, it means that Liverpool will field a back four where at least 3 players are genuinely comfortable on the ball and are not afraid to attack. Potentially we’re talking about a set of defenders that can comfortably bomb forward. Regardless of whether they approach the games as attacking or controlling defense, the quality on the ball will be there. If Liverpool do field a backline of Johnson, Carragher, Agger and Insua and even if Rafa Benitez insists on them working as a tight defensive unit, they will still do it with a lot more comfort on the ball, thus allowing themselves more time and space.
Another case for a better defence is the emergence of Agger as a defensive leader. Morten Olsen, the national coach of Denmark, claims that Agger has now developed into a defender that can lead the rest of the team. He is now firmly the organizing central defender for the national team and has been trusted with lot of responsibility. Unfortunately for Liverpool, Agger’s maturing both as a person and as a player was happening while he was injured and they couldn’t reap the benefits of his personal development. However, he is fit now and this new dimension in his game could possibly ease up the pressure on Carragher as well as allow Rafa to finally begin to trust the rarely tested Skrtel/Agger partnership.
As for Alonso, Liverpool fans shouldn’t worry about it. He’s more than welcome to stay at the club, but if he leaves Liverpool will have the money and the pulling power to replace him adequately. Rafa Benitez can walk up to any club president and offer £30mil for a central midfielder whom he can promise the role of a playmaker at one of the biggest clubs in the world, playing just behind Gerrard and Torres. What player will say no to that?
Taking everything into consideration, Liverpool seem to be on the brink. Perhaps they’re the only team out of “top 4” who actually seem to be on an upward curve. Man Utd are having personnel difficulties. Chelsea don’t seem to have the required quality in attacking positions and Arsenal are shaky. Liverpool look like the strongest team on paper and they are ready to take the next and final step. Only a couple of years ago Liverpool didn’t seem that close. Miraculously enough the tables have turned completely and other top 4 teams have allowed Liverpool to sneak up on them.
Since 1997, Liverpool have felt many times that they can win the title. Now they actually believe it and that’s a victory in itself. It’s also the final obstacle before lifting the Premier League trophy.