With Liverpool getting another clean sheet with a workman-like display is it not about time we called the crisis off? One look at the form book (over the last eight games) shows that things really are returning to their perfect order:
4. Manchester United
6. Manchester City
8. Aston Villa
Those top four might need a slight reshuffle come the end of the season, but it shows perennial fifth-place finisher Everton getting back into the swing of things, and also shows how all the pretenders to the throne really might just be exactly that. It’s been the defensive frailties that have left Liverpool currently sitting fifth in the league, and leaving Rafael Benitez staring at some rather stark statistics. Last season they conceded 27 goals. So far this season they have conceded 26. If only Benitez had known that Jamie Carragher, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel would decide to sign a ‘loss of form’ pact at the same time he may well have hung onto Sami Hyppia for a bit longer. Taking another angle and the ethos that ‘attack is the best form of defence’ this can’t have been helped by the inexplicable absence of Steven Gerrard this season. He’s actually played the majority of games, 19 out of 24, but has hardly looked like the player he has been in recent years. Last season he was top scorer with 16 goals. This season he has managed only five, two of which have been penalties. With this particular loss of form, seems to have come the loss of Liverpool’s spirit.
Looking at the stats proves this without doubt. Last season, Liverpool went behind in 11 games. Out of those, they only went on to lose one, winning six and drawing the rest. It’s an astonishing statistic and shows how much they wanted it last year. It also showed how they changed their style, as prior to that it had all been business-like under Benitez. They were involved in plenty of bore draws, even with Xabi Alonso in the team (which people seem to forget) and constantly seemed to do enough to get their third or fourth place finish. Yet halfway through last season, something changed and the team became super-charged. There was the classic 4-4 with Arsenal but also plenty of 3-0, 3-1 and 4-0 victories which suggested that Liverpool had finally stepped up to the plate, while also meaning that they were more open and therefore conceding goals, as the fact they fell behind in 11 games shows.
This season they have fallen behind in seven games, and have gone on to lose six of them, the other result being a victory. It’s almost a complete reversal of last season. That victory was against Bolton and the player that got the winning goal was Gerrard. It was the last time he’s single-handedly dragged them back into a game. Since Gerrard has been unable to rescue his team, Benitez has switched back to the old Liverpool system, where a 0-0 draw with Wolves is an “okay” result and where resilience is cherished more than adventure. Maybe it is what they have to do get to back into the Champions League spot, but it most certainly means they will be no-one’s prediction for champions next season. Teams need spirit to win the league, the kind of spirit that sees you come back from behind time to time, where you are snatching goals in the 93rd minute, and until they get that back they will just have to make do with a Champions League spot – at best.