Season of anarchy opens up rare window of opportunity
Luis Suarez makes Liverpool contenders again but they need to take some risks, writes Dion Fanning
Shortly before Christmas last year, Brendan Rodgers met the press ahead of Liverpool's game at home to Aston Villa. He spoke of Liverpool's ambitions for the season. "Fourth is up for grabs, so is third, so is second and maybe even first." The headlines on the morning of the game suggested Rodgers was aiming for the title. That afternoon Aston Villa, 17th in the Premier League, dismantled Liverpool at Anfield.
Rodgers' first season was littered with moments of comic self-aggrandisement and preposterous rhetoric. He treated the two impostors just the same: both were usually greeted with rapturous acclaim.
Perhaps Rodgers' need to demonstrate to Liverpool supporters that he understood the ambitions of the club was behind his constant retreat to meaninglessness. He could reasonably claim he wasn't helped by a behind-the-scenes documentary in which his displays of vapid loquaciousness were the only notable element, even if these verbal tics predated his arrival on Merseyside.
Before Liverpool played Manchester City at the Etihad last week, Brendan Rodgers said the title was Manchester City's to lose. He made no grandiose claims except one: Liverpool would play without fear at the Etihad. As Liverpool attacked and attacked and attacked on St Stephen's Day, Rodgers' promise matched the purpose of his team. Even in defeat, they demonstrated one thing -- it is Manchester City's title to lose but Liverpool, in this season of anarchy and chaos, can win it.
Winning the title was not among Liverpool's ambitions for the season. The club's target remains a return to the Champions League, a sign of the progress that has been made in 18 months. When they dismissed Kenny Dalglish and appointed Rodgers, the owners wanted to remodel the club. Rodgers has pointed to the work done at Dortmund. His appointment in the summer of 2012 marked "year zero" for the club, some said.
In response to criticism from fans in September 2012, John Henry wrote an open letter to supporters. He assured them that "a summer window which brought in three young, but significantly talented starters in Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin and Fabio Borini as well as two exciting young potential stars of the future -- Samed Yesil and Oussama Assaidi -- could hardly be deemed a failure".
He went on to explain that FSG were in the process of reversing errors made by previous regimes. "It will not happen overnight. It has been compounded by our own mistakes in a difficult first two years of ownership."
Henry said there was a clear vision at work. "Our ambitions do not lie in cementing a mid-table place with expensive, short-term quick fixes that will only contribute for a couple of years. Our emphasis will be on developing our own players using the skills of an increasingly impressive coaching team."
This vision remains in place. The summer window that brought in Joe Allen, Nuri Sahin (not for long), and the rest might not be deemed a failure but it hasn't done much for Liverpool's first team.
The subsequent windows have been better, even if there have been a number of curious arrivals too. At the Etihad, Liverpool deserved something but as they chased the game, Rodgers sent on Iago Aspas and Victor Moses. All results were possible at that stage but with the entry of those two summer signings, a draw and a Liverpool victory started heading for the exit.
One man has made Henry and Rodgers' project viable and he is a man signed during the period when FSG were making their own mistakes.
Luis Suarez predates year zero. He makes FSG's vision look achievable and he makes their mistakes seem unimportant. He highlights Rodgers' coaching expertise and allows his failings to be overlooked. He is one of the most extraordinary forces ever to play football in England and he makes the future Liverpool were building towards achievable right now. Shortly after FSG took over, Henry described football as a "wild west". Many things about the game baffled them, especially when compared to the relatively controlled way in which US sports operate.
Last summer, Henry was determined that Suarez would not be sold. Rodgers' role was supplementary. He spoke grandly about the meaning of the club, he talked of loyalty, said the "project" was bigger than any player and looked for an apology from Suarez for his attitude. The substance was provided by Henry who had already dismissed Arsenal's bid for Suarez in his famous tweet before he elaborated his position.
"To sell to a rival for those positions, or one of them, would be ludicrous. Liverpool needs to be playing in Europe. It needs to be playing in the Champions League. That's what Liverpool Football Club is about . . . He won't be sold even if a foreign club comes in because we do not have time to sign a suitable replacement. It's a football reason. It's not about finances. That's why at this point, so late in the window, with everyone who's already moved or isn't moving, we can't replace him. So for football reasons we can't sell, and especially to Arsenal."
Henry called the manoeuvring around contracts "rotten" but he was determined that Suarez's would have some validity. In English football, it was a radical act -- matched by the Glazers with Rooney -- and it was the foundation for all that has happened to Liverpool this season.
Without Suarez, there would be lots of promise and some hopeful talk about a sunny tomorrow. Suarez, in every sense, plays as if there is no tomorrow. With him, Liverpool should take advantage of this unlikely chance of winning the title.
In January, FSG and Rodgers have the opportunity to demonstrate their willingness to cement Liverpool, not in mid-table, but in the top four and beyond. They are helped this season, as they won't be again, by a reminder of how far they had fallen: without European football, Liverpool, as Mourinho has said, can relentlessly focus on the league.
Liverpool's best football has been played in the weeks since Steven Gerrard has been injured. Rodgers needs to demonstrate that he can make the tough decisions that are an essential accompaniment to what has clearly been some fine work in developing others in the team by keeping the club captain out of the side.
Gerrard would, at this stage in his career, be best suited to a place on the bench where he might be able to use some of his old explosiveness. He is least suited in every way to a role sitting in front of defence and Rodgers will have to resist the urge to play him there.
The contrast between the Liverpool midfield led by Gerrard at the Emirates and at Goodison and the midfield without him at White Hart Lane and the Etihad is striking and unsurprising.
FSG, too, must take a chance. When Liverpool lost at home to Southampton in September, Rodgers had to defend his decision to play with four centre-backs, including two of the three that had arrived in the summer.
They were curious purchases. Rodgers is believed to have wanted a number ten while it remains a surprise that the club didn't make a move for James McCarthy or another central midfielder.
Rodgers is now part of a transfer committee, something which he might not have been in much of a position to resist. Yet the transfer committee has had mixed results too and the presence of Aspas and Moses on Thursday night was a reminder of how mixed they have been.
If Liverpool are to challenge for the title, they must spend in January. Rodgers could have Daniel Sturridge and Gerrard on the bench when they return from injury but if he had another midfielder or forward of genuine class, they could hope to sustain the challenge.
In Gerrard's absence, Joe Allen has enjoyed what for him must be seen as a resurgence while another player who survived the year-zero purge, Jordan Henderson, has matured. Henderson's decision to stay when he was reportedly offered to Fulham as part of a deal for Clint Dempsey has been rewarded. FSG resisted that signing and time has vindicated that decision while Rodgers can claim to have improved Henderson as a player.
In the summer, Henry understood that to sell Suarez would mean a retreat. Instead Liverpool have advanced and when Suarez signed his new contract before Christmas, it was another acknowledgement that anything is possible.
If Liverpool don't make the Champions League, Suarez could still leave in the summer, but for a staggering fee. If they strengthen in January then the prizes could bring financial liberation and something more important too.
Rodgers has talked less flamboyantly this year even if, at times, he still sounds as if he is reading from the Gerard Houllier playbook. Before the game on St Stephen's Day, he remarked that Manchester City's decision to play with an extra man in midfield was a "mark of respect for how we play, our system and our structures".
Right now, Rodgers' side are making his comments irrelevant. His Liverpool doesn't resemble Houllier's. On Thursday night, Rodgers' remarks about referee Lee Mason showed a new willingness to take the fight to the world while deflecting from the chances Liverpool missed. He has wisely made no wild claims about Liverpool and a title challenge.
The defeat at Manchester City showed that Liverpool can still lose while playing well which will always be an occupational hazard for a side that can't defend set-pieces.
Today they are at Stamford Bridge facing a Chelsea side which could yet win the title, most likely by profiting from the implosion of others. They have played their part in the season's craziness but Mourinho resembles a great actor cast in a role which bores him deeply.
His weariness at the same old lines is a contrast with the vibrancy of this Liverpool team. If they play with the same adventure today as was seen at the Etihad, they can win. If they do, there will be nothing to fear in the title race and nothing to lose in pursuing it.