Five Liverpool improvers who are beginning to impress
Liverpool’s revival since Christmas week has seen the Reds’ season turn from a non-event into one where they are suddenly right in the chase for a top four finish, very well placed to win the FA Cup and possibly in with a shout for the Europa League. It’s a far cry from the mid-December misery which engulfed Anfield, when an early Champions League exit and a 3-0 hammering by Manchester United added salt to Liverpool fans’ gaping wounds from a season that, up to then, had delivered so little.
The upturn of form for Brendan Rodgers’ team since then has been helped in part by the return from injury of Daniel Sturridge, who despite being out for almost five months has looked as sharp as ever, although several players whose pre-Christmas performances drew no shortage of criticism are now showing signs that perhaps they do merit their place in the home dressing room at Anfield. Looking at five men who have improved considerably along with Liverpool’s fortunes, maybe it is no surprise that things are beginning to click for Rodgers and co.
After a decent first season at Anfield, the opening months of Mignolet’s second year on Merseyside saw the Belgian called into question on quite a few occasions. While at times he was not helped by the feebleness of the defenders in front of him, some of Liverpool’s concessions were certainly down to goalkeeping errors. Any team pushing for success must have a dominant, authoritative man between the sticks, and unfortunately Mignolet did not fit those categories in autumn 2014. He flapped at crosses and set pieces, his positioning was off and far too many of his goal kicks and clearances were aimlessly booted into touch in a manner that a rugby out-half would love to achieve.
When he was dropped in favour of Brad Jones for the visit to Old Trafford in December, Mignolet could have been forgiven for thinking that his time in Liverpool may have been coming to an end. However, Jones’ misfortune in picking up an injury at Burnley on Boxing Day was to be his fellow netminder’s huge opportunity and the Belgian has not looked back since. He recently said in an interview that, during his displacement before Christmas, his fiancee advised him not to think too much about in-game decisions and, since returning to the team, Mignolet has looked much more commanding and assertive. The doubt-ridden number one of earlier this season is now an assured beacon of confidence and, in the vital wins over Tottenham and Crystal Palace last week, he was arguably the main reason why Liverpool collected three points instead of one at Anfield and don’t have an FA Cup fifth round replay on the horizon.
When you spend £15million on a central defender, you can rightfully expect him to be a commanding rock of comfort at the back. For a prolonged spell at the start of this season, Sakho was providing as much comfort to Liverpool fans as a knife-wielding maniac who had broken into your house. The supposed tower of physicality who had played so impressively for Paris Saint-Germain and France was instead a clumsy, oafish player who far too often failed to execute the basics of defending. Careless in possession and clueless when facing set pieces, he then committed a dismal error at West Ham in September when, with the ideal opportunity to clear his lines, he casually played the ball towards the middle of the field, where the Hammers gladly seized possession to put the seal on a 3-1 victory. After bailing from Anfield when dropped for the Merseyside derby a week later, surely the end was nigh for Sakho in a Liverpool shirt?
He came back into the side for the 2-2 draw with Arsenal three months later, with Martin Skrtel’s 97th-minute equaliser proving to be the turning point in Liverpool’s season. The Reds have kept five clean sheets in their eight Premier League matches since then and, to his credit, Sakho has been central to that new-found and overdue solidity. He can still be sloppy with the ball at his feet within 30 yards of his own goal, but how many times has the Frenchman put in a firm yet immaculately-timed challenge to halt an opposition attack? Remarkably, Liverpool have a higher win percentage this season with him in the team than with any other player, so perhaps the cries to dispense with his services have been premature. Unlikely as it seemed five months ago, he represents a far more assuring option in central defence than Dejan Lovren, who is stuck in the type of rut in which Sakho previously found himself.
When analysing Liverpool’s nine purchases last summer, at the time it did not seem a very shrewd piece of business to lash out £20million on a 20-year-old Serbian winger who had a few impressive cameos for Benfica in the Europa League. Markovic’s early weeks at Anfield were not easy, with the youngster looking like a flashy bits-and-pieces player rather than a footballer of substance. He certainly didn’t seem to have the physicality to make it in the English game and, even for his tender years, he had a habit of taking the wrong option on the ball. The frightful moniker of Milan Jovanovic was beginning to be bandied about, a reference to another Serbian attacking midfielder who came to Liverpool in 2010 with a glowing reputation but soon left as one of the club’s biggest duds of modern times.
Since the turn of the year, Markovic has proven that he does have the talent and work ethic to succeed at Liverpool. His man of the match performance at Sunderland was capped by an early, decisive goal and he has been a fixture in the first team ever since. He has improved his spacial awareness considerably and looks confident rather than hesitant when in possession. Opposition defenders are finding him a tough nut to crack and another cool finish against Tottenham last week showed that Markovic may ultimately prove worthy of the sizeable fee he commanded over the summer. Also, seeing as he won’t be 21 until the week after next, there is still plenty of time for him to get even better.
With Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge taking most of the acclaim for Liverpool’s title charge in 2013/14, the contribution of Henderson in midfield was often overlooked. Like Markovic, he came to Anfield as a 20-year-old with a lofty reputation and transfer fee, only to struggle initially before growing into a key player. Henderson has a different skill set from his Serbian team-mate, one which isn’t as noticeable to the naked eye, but the decision to award him the vice-captaincy proved that he was an invaluable figure at Anfield. In truth, he wasn’t fully appreciated until he served a three-match ban towards the end of last season and his absence was glaring in the games against Chelsea and Crystal Palace where Liverpool let glory slip.
In the early weeks of this season, without the brilliance of Suarez and Sturridge ahead of him, Henderson seemed to have taken a step back. It was as if the quality of the much-feted SAS helped the England midfielder to raise his game, and without those two strikers he regressed. Then, when Steven Gerrard announced just after the New Year that he was leaving at the end of this season, it became known that Henderson would be his successor as captain. In the weeks since, the ex-Sunderland man has again embraced the responsibility thrust upon him and, at 24, is at the same stage of his career as Gerrard was when he was the heartbeat of Liverpool’s European Cup triumph a decade ago. Henderson looks a man reborn and Rodgers may not have to go looking too far at all for a successor to the iconic Gerrard.
Let’s face it – from the moment that Liverpool announced the signing of Balotelli, we all knew that the Italian striker wouldn’t be far from the headlines. While the fireworks, darts and funny hats antics of his Manchester City days have thankfully passed, instead Mario was providing comic relief of a different kind, this time in front of the Sky and BT cameras at packed stadia. With his only pre-Christmas goals coming against Ludogorets (Champions League) and Swansea (Capital One Cup), it was beginning to look as if a goalkeeper could score in this season’s Premier League before Balotelli did. Whatever chances he did get, he wasted, and he often looked as if he quite simply could not be bothered. Speculation grew as to whether Rodgers would cut his losses altogether in January, just as Rafael Benitez did six years ago in ruthless fashion with Robbie Keane.
Fast forward to 10 February – Liverpool are drawing 2-2 at home to Tottenham in a vital game that the Reds, for all of their first half chances, should have put to bed in the opening 20 minutes. As Balotelli is sprung from the bench, Liverpool fans everywhere groan. In the 82nd minute, Adam Lallana delivers an inviting low cross into the Spurs penalty area and the moody Italian turns it into the net. That elusive Premier League goal had finally arrived and what a time to score it. Also, in stoppage time with Spurs chasing a third equaliser, Balotelli closed down opponents at every opportunity, something that seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago. His impact off the bench against Crystal Palace on Saturday, where he returned the favour to set up Lallana for the winning goal, again showed that maybe this much-criticised character does have a future at Liverpool. Two decisive substitute appearances do not suddenly make Balotelli a miracle worker, but there are signs that, like his team, he is on the right track.
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