If, as seems likely, Liverpool do not win the 2013/14 Premier League title it will be remember in the near-term as a failure, but in the middle and long term as a bloody good tilt at it. To come from relatively nowhere to challenge the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, is achievement indeed and there should be pride after the initial disappointment has worn off.
All of that goes without saying.
There is a growing murmur that this side represents Liverpool’s best chance to win the title for years past (which is inarguable) and for years to come. It is the second part of that sentiment that I disagree with. While it is self-evident that certain stars have aligned well for Liverpool this campaign in the form of Steven Gerrard’s form in the second half of the campaign and the double-barrelled attack of Suárez and Sturridge, as well as the continued development of Raheem Sterling, there’s no reason any of those things need be disregarded for the next campaign.
Returning to the Anfield fold after impressive seasons out on loan will be Assaidi from Stoke and Borini from Sunderland – both of whom might have added a little to the Reds in these closing weeks of the season as their campaign has faltered; Borini, particularly, has found his feet in the North-East and could well get some significant game time at Anfield next season.
There is further strengthening needed, of course, but Brendan Rodgers has shown no little ability to do that; he has bought wisely in the shape of Coutinho and Sturridge, even if Iago Aspas and Victor Moses haven’t quite rewarded their manager’s faith in them. With Champions League football confirmed, the side are guaranteed at least six more matches next season; but six important games, a long way away; those are the kind of peripheral players will need to be better, resting Sturridge on Saturday for a game against Juventus might be absolutely necessary, while this season he might have been required to play the league game. It will require not just extra players, but extra managerial skill, too.
Again, there’s nothing to say that with a few additional bodies, either from outside or inside the club, Rodgers’ side cannot progress further. They have fallen a little short this year, but equally they’ve also dropped points in eminently winnable games – the defeat to Southampton stands out, as does losing at Hull. Improve upon these results, and eradicate that patchy early season away form, and they would have the opportunity to build on a points tally that, such as it is, would win only one of the last ten Premier Leagues; indeed, only four teams have won the title having lost six games since Liverpool’s last triumph.
Actually, while I’m doing this, Liverpool’s defence would be record-breakingly bad in the Premier League era – the current 1.324 goals per game conceded would represent the highest GAG of any Champions since Ipswich’s 1.595 in 1961/62, and the 20th worst of all time (the Huddersfield Town side of 1925/26 sit 11th on this list if any Terriers are reading); though Manchester United’s defence last time out was not much better – we are in an age of goals after all.
The point is that Liverpool have been thrilling, daring and exciting this season. They have played to their myriad strengths and been good fun to watch doing so. Yet, as we come to the season’s denouement, their weaknesses have come to the fore – handily illustrating what needs to be done to improve the team.
There have been good wins this campaign, but equally there have been some damp squibs against the very top teams – Mourinho’s Chelsea claimed six points, Arsenal and Manchester City both gained three – had the away form been better earlier (think of how tepid Liverpool looked at the Emirates) then the title might have been in their grasp.
As it is, it wasn’t and, though other, more financially flush teams will strengthen also over the summer, the Premier League is changing. The ‘Big 4’ have been blown apart by the entrance of Manchester City; and as long as Tottenham Hotspur and Everton continue to progress there are seven teams who represent a reasonable challenge to one another in one-off encounters.
That makes twelve games in which teams who could legitimately make a run at the top of the table could drop points; it sounds ludicrous, but winning the other twenty six games would gain 78 points. In theory at least, there’s no reason any of those teams couldn’t do that, making the thirty-six points in those games in the mini-league particularly important – see the ratio (look at Manchester United!) of the graph below.
That growing strength of the top teams indicates that the 90 point titles of recent seasons might be a thing of the past – Chelsea and Manchester City might pull away in future, but they haven’t yet.
As such, it’s all to play for next year. This was a bloody good campaign from a Liverpool side who were better than anyone expected. We might expect more of them next time out but, with a good summer, there’s no reason they couldn’t surprise us all again.