It’s official. If it wasn’t already, then from this moment on Liverpool are undeniably, astonishingly, in the mix at the top of the Premier League. Even following the demolition of Arsenal, and still perhaps after the last-gasp comeback win against Fulham, there might have reasonably remained doubts as to the likelihood that they have what it takes to be crowned champions come May – they were, after all, still in fourth place after each. No longer.
A hard-fought victory over Southampton sends Liverpool to second, and has done so in a manner which displays the resilient qualities expected of any title contender, but of all the clubs involved in this race, it remains unique to Brendan Rodgers and his side to be carrying such momentum alongside frank acceptance of their flaws. Whereas title challengers of years gone by have been famed for their bravado, that all-consuming desire to be the next team to dominate the football landscape, here is a side who know, even acknowledge in public, where their failings lie. It is more than that, though. Liverpool’s faults have become an integral part of this late title push. When Brendan Rodgers says he is taking things ‘one game at a time’, he isn’t practising humility for the sake of it; with a team like this, equally capable of attacking brilliance as defensive implosion, ambition cannot go unchecked.
Indeed, it doesn’t. After every game, at every midweek press conference, the same question is followed by the same answer. Can Liverpool win the Premier League? ‘We’re just looking to win the next match.’ With each passing week, that response lands a heavier and heavier blow. He’s still just looking to win. Again. And he’ll being doing the same next week. For a man who so often fumbled through his first six months at Anfield spurting those awful, hollow Brentian sound bites, it’s all the more impressive that Brendan Rodgers now echoes with perfect clarity the era-defining single-mindedness of Bill Shankly. Perhaps he’s not as instantly quotable – perhaps we should be grateful for the fact that his quotable days are behind him – but however he chooses to expresses it, it would appear that Rodgers has focussed his team around a single, once-cherished principle: if you’re first, you’re first; if you’re second, you’re nothing.
And so it is, at least in the one-on-one ties battled out each weekend, that Liverpool keep coming in first. They are unbeaten in the league in 2014 and have scored 73 goals to date. With that latter statistic so often follows the apparent drawback: 35 goals conceded, more than any top six side. More than most sides in the league, in fact. But this rather seems to miss the point. Liverpool are not, as seems to be the suggestion, winning despite their weaknesses; they are winning because they acknowledge them. Of course there are tactical considerations given to each of their respective opponents, but what seems constant in all performances is the knowledge that if they are going to win – and that is what it keeps coming back to – they might just have to score a bucketload to do so. There are no punches pulled here. Liverpool’s defence is not very good. Individually each member of the back five are capable of excellence, an abundance of which was shown this weekend, but so too are they, and have they been on numerous occasions, prone to individual errors and costly miscommunications between each other.
When it all comes down to winning, however, that doesn’t necessarily matter. If, as is the case at Anfield, there are no hierarchical distractions at play – no targets to be met, no transfer fees to be justified, no twelve year plans to be set in motion – then the one thing that could bring this team down, surely, would be that defence. And yet it fails to. The objective, as we so frequently hear, is simply to win the scheduled game of football. Liverpool take to the field now with an ambition that has perhaps not been so finely and devastatingly measured since the league title was last won. This side know where they might fall short and yet somehow – to Brendan Rodgers’ immense credit – it only seems to drive them on to do better. Every goal conceded has to matched and bettered by a goal scored. Though there is rampancy in Liverpool’s attacking play, it is one informed by and grounded in the knowledge that it is necessary, a pre-emptive antidote to what Rodgers has referred to as ‘uncoachable’ defensive susceptibility.
Liverpool wear their faults with pride. There is no other way. It could yet be their undoing, but the time for such scepticism has passed. At the beginning of the season their manager suggested, with regard to Champions League qualification, that it was simply a case of ‘being part of the conversation’. One could be forgiven for criticising his apparent lack of ambition. And yet, as opportunities have unfolded throughout the course of the past eight months, Brendan Rodgers has forced his way into an unfamiliar new dialogue – one that it’s looking increasingly likely he might just have the final word in.