Since Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho were recruited in January, Liverpool have displayed the kind of form that makes them strong contenders for a top-four spot this year -- assuming of course they can sustain it. The second half of last season proved that when they're on their game, Liverpool can dazzle with the best of them, while they've shown in the opening three games of this campaign that they may be developing that invaluable trait all successful sides have of being able to grind out wins. What they haven't shown yet is whether they can do both on a consistent basis, and that's the next step if the 18-time champions are to become a force in the English game once more.
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It's a bit of a cliche, but the only consistent thing about the Reds last year was their inconsistency. It seemed like every time Brendan Rodgers' men threatened to put a run together, they found a way to undo all the good work by dropping points when you least expected it. It became an all-too-familiar pattern: Liverpool would win a few games ahead of a favourable run of upcoming fixtures and then the fans would start totting up how many points they expected to pick up and where in the league table those points would take them. Then out of nowhere Liverpool would lose a game everybody expected them to win and it was back to square one.
It was that inconsistency as much as anything else that not only kept the Reds out of the top four but also ensured they finished below Everton for a second successive year. The opportunities were there to move up the table but they were not taken, as Liverpool threw away countless points from games they should have won at a canter. In the first half of the season there was an excuse for it as the side was simply not good enough and lacked quality in the final third. But after the cavalry arrived in January, quality wasn't the issue; it was inconsistency, especially at home. One week they'd be putting three past an impressive Tottenham Hotspur side, the next they'd draw a blank against a mediocre West Ham United.
There were shades of the Roy Evans era about the Reds last year: occasionally brilliant, but often lacking in resilience and widely regarded as "a bit of a soft touch," especially from set pieces. Evans' side were dubbed "the Spice Boys" of course, and while I would certainly not saddle the current squad with such a disparaging label (whatever faults they have, a lack of professionalism is certainly not one of them), it's worth pointing out that those defeats to Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Southampton, etc. came hot on the heels of some good performances and at a time when the players were being talked up by fans and media alike. That would perhaps point to complacency, an issue that also affected that Evans side.
It looked from the outside that any time Liverpool put a few good wins together last year they started to think they were better than they are and paid the price for it. The Villa defeat in particular absolutely reeked of complacency, as Rodgers himself conceded afterwards. Momentum had been building after wins over Southampton, West Ham and Udinese, but it all came crashing down when Christian Benteke simply manhandled the Liverpool defence as Paul Lambert's side raced into a 3-0 lead before Steven Gerrard headed a consolation goal.
Losing at home to WBA was almost as bad, as once again it came at a time when the Reds had appeared to be building something of a head of steam. Norwich had been hammered 5-0, while tough away trips to Arsenal and Manchester City had both ended in creditable 2-2 draws. Liverpool had been unfortunate not to win both of those games and the players had received a lot of plaudits for how they had performed. A home game against Steve Clarke's men was an ideal opportunity for them to build on that and show the progress they were making, but unfortunately they bottled it.
It was a recurring theme and the shambolic display at St Mary's against Southampton in March once again highlighted Liverpool's inconsistency. Going into that one the Reds had collected maximum points from the previous three fixtures with 12 goals scored and just two conceded, both in a morale-boosting 3-2 win over Spurs at Anfield the week before. Coming from behind to beat Tottenham had put everybody connected with the club on a high and the team seemed primed for a strong run that would see them climb the table. Sadly, the display on the south coast was as bad as anything Liverpool produced all season, and all the hope that had been generated from the Spurs result was washed away by another wave of mass deflation. Goalless draws against West Ham and Reading only served to further Kopites' sense of frustration.
Such erratic results were infuriating but were to be expected under the circumstances. Liverpool were a flawed team that had finished no higher than sixth in the three previous seasons, and they had a new manager with relatively little top-flight experience who was not only learning about his players, but also about himself.
Playing for and managing Liverpool brings incredible pressure and expectation, and Rodgers is much better equipped to deal with that this season, and also has a better idea as to which of his players are up to the task. Playing for a top club is as much about mental strength as it is talent, and last year Liverpool were found wanting on too many occasions.
It was two steps forward and then one step back for most of the year. Even in the final few games it was in evidence as a hugely disappointing performance in a goalless draw with Everton came sandwiched between two rampant away wins over Newcastle and Fulham. When Liverpool were good, they were very good. When they were not so good, they dropped points. So far this year that trend has been reversed with three relatively scrappy wins on the board, which -- fingers crossed -- point to a more resilient quality about the team this year. It's too early to know for certain whether "consistency corner" has been turned, however, and with a number of very winnable games on the immediate horizon this is about the time when Liverpool would normally lay an egg.
On paper the next six games look very favourable for the Reds but hopefully Rodgers will be drumming into his players the dangers of taking these games lightly, while pointing to the examples of last season to ensure the same mistakes are not made. Realistically though, there's every chance Liverpool may lose at least one of these "winnable" games, and should that happen it won't be the end of the world and it won't necessarily mean things are no better than last year. Defeats come with the territory in football and even the very best sides will occasionally lose; the secret is to make sure it doesn't happen very often.
Only twice in the history of English football has a team gone through an entire league campaign undefeated. The first ones to do it were Preston North End in 1888-89, while the most recent example was when the great Kolo Toure almost single-handedly carried Arsenal's "Invincibles" to an incredible unbeaten season back in 2003-04.
Liverpool are not an exceptional side though, and a defeat is obviously coming sooner or later. Hopefully it is later, but the most important thing is that it does not become as regular an occurrence as it has been in recent years. Losing games is to be expected, even Kenny Dalglish's great sides of the late 80s slipped up occasionally, but you have to keep the "unnecessary" defeats to a minimum if you want to be competitive at the top end of the league. That's been Liverpool's biggest failing since they last won the title. If you beat the teams you should be beating and get whatever you can from the games against those around you, then you won't go far wrong.
Manchester United have won numerous titles despite not always being -- on paper at least -- the most talented team in the country. Other sides such as Chelsea, Arsenal and even Liverpool in 2009 have arguably been superior to United when playing at their best level, but over a 38-game season Alex Ferguson's side were just ruthlessly consistent and generally won the games they were supposed to win while making sure they didn't lose too many of the ones against their main rivals. In 2009 Liverpool ran them close and were arguably a better side (even winning 4-1 at Old Trafford), but silly points dropped at home to the likes of Hull City, Fulham and West Ham United would ultimately prove costly to Rafa Benitez's side.
Expecting title-winning levels of consistency from Liverpool at this moment in time is wholly unrealistic, but it's not too much to expect them to cut down on the number of disappointing setbacks they've had in games they "should" be winning. If they can do that, they'll have every chance of claiming a Champions League place, as last year's third- and fourth-placed sides were hardly models of consistency either. Arsenal finished the season very strongly but were all over the place at times before Christmas, and Chelsea were up and down all year, even losing at home to a woeful QPR side. They just didn't slip up as many times as Liverpool did, and that's the main thing Rodgers needs to address.
I really want to believe in this side -- and my gut feeling is that things will be better this year -- but it is still too early to know whether they can be fully trusted yet. The six upcoming league games represent a wonderful opportunity to put points on the board and should tell us a lot about whether Liverpool have finally put those inconsistencies behind them. Here's hoping.