The post-Steven Gerrard Liverpool is already here and Man United may be the ones who pay
Brendan Rodgers is crowing again, only this time the Anfield pontiff does not offend the ears.
The greatest compliment we can pay Rodgers is the silence around Steven Gerrard. Back in the dark days of autumn, Gerrard and his measured usage by Liverpool was the subject of a national debate.
Now when he turns up in the Sky box in a suit to pass comment on his team-mates and not a murmur.
The post-Gerrard Liverpool is already here, firing the club into the fight for a Champions League place with verve and imagination. The Liverpool that toiled at home to Basel in December sealing Champions League exclusion at the group stage are light weeks removed from the slick ensemble that approaches March arguably playing better than any team in England.
Take a bow Rodgers, a coach pilloried pre-Christmas for his overbearing philosophising and dismissed as a false prophet living on borrowed time.
The 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford days after the Basel debacle in early December saw Liverpool slump to 10th in the Premier League, ten points behind that fading yard stick Manchester United.
Just two month on Louis van Gaal labours unconvincingly at United while Rodgers has transformed a faltering group via the power and clarity of his ideas and the simplicity of the message.
The loss of Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to injury fractured the sweet rhythm of last season.
Raheem Sterling simply could not cope with the attacking burden that fell upon him, Philippe Coutinho could not find a pass and Jordan Henderson buckled under the added responsibility of running for Stevie G.
Thus the creative force that took Liverpool to the brink of nirvana last season was utterly emasculated, and to top it all there was no cavalry charge left in Gerrard’s legs.
The Basel/United experience proved definitive. Rodgers was decisive in his response, switching to a three-man defensive structure.
Alberto Moreno suddenly looks a player in the wing-back role and Emre Can has come alive as defensive player with an attacking thrust.
Henderson recovered his consistency in a central role, Coutinho rediscovered his spark and after being sent to the Caribbean for a week’s rest and recuperation Sterling reconnected with his mojo.
The return of Sturridge is an obvious benefit, as is the emergence of Jordan Ibe in the right wing-back role after his loan spell at Derby. Players like Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana, who were slow to adapt to the heightened environs, are no longer dismissed as peripheral duds.
Liverpool are a joined-up team with pace in the right areas and confidence restored, demonstrated by the stirring battle against Chelsea, who were fortunate to edge past them in the Capitol Cup semi-final, and the victory at Southampton, arguably their best of the season.
Southampton can whinge all they like about possession and chances. Liverpool controlled the tempo and rhythm of the game with and without the ball. They were rarely in danger, always organised and a threat on the break.
More than anything they are a side worth watching again. Van Gaal might want to pay attention. What is the point of attaining top-four status when there is so little joy in the experience?
Rodgers might grate a little when he steps on his pedestal but he is in essence correct to identify and aspire to a way of doing things that since the days of Bill Shankly defines the club he represents.
Van Gaal is nowhere near understanding the tradition he inherited at United, and unless he happens across the right formula soon he will not have a top-four finish to justify his labours. The visit of United to Liverpool a month hence already has a pivotal look about it.
If Gerrard goes for the whistle and flute again on March 22 United are in real trouble.
Independent News Service