Liverpool's collapse was a bubble waiting to burst
How does Brendan Rodgers go from publicly targeting second place to conceding that fourth is out of reach in the space of a couple of games? Simply, it’s because his Liverpool team, one on a prolonged run of positive results, was found wanting when it came to two key fixtures against direct rivals. Their dam of a defence, which had conceded six goals in 12 league games, didn’t so much begin to leak as burst open with a cavalcade, shipping the same number of goals in 10 fewer matches. The air of optimism and bravado which circulated around Merseyside a mere fortnight ago prior to Manchester United’s visit now stenches of recrimination, blame and soul-searching following Saturday’s surrender at Arsenal.
And thus, after such a lengthy good run which prompted their fans to dream of great things, two damaging results have sucked every bit of life out of Liverpool’s season. Hang on, have we heard this one before? Yes we have, a mere 11 months ago when the Reds racked up 11 consecutive wins to put themselves within touching distance of that elusive Premier League crown, only to blow it spectacularly in two disastrous games. The differences this time around were that Liverpool weren’t pushing for top spot and that, instead of 11 wins in a row, they went 13 unbeaten.
There was one eerie similarity between February-April 2014 and December 2014-March 2015. Towards the end of both runs, Liverpool were stuttering rather than stunning. The bubble had evolved into a balloon which was ever expanding and, of course, the bigger you make a balloon, the more likely it is to pop all of a sudden. The Reds’ last three games of the 2014 winning sequence were nervy one-goal wins over West Ham, Manchester City and Norwich. The 3-2 victory at Carrow Road was especially edgy, with Liverpool clinging on for dear life rather than bossing it over a team which would be relegated two weeks later. Go back to mid-March and, after a sleepy goalless draw at home to Blackburn in the FA Cup, they defeated Swansea with a freak goal in a match where Liverpool did not impress.
2013-14: the 11 consecutive wins
The winning sequence which so nearly catapulted Liverpool to the title last year was initiated in incredible fashion with that famous 5-1 thrashing of Arsenal, a day when Rodgers’ men were four goals to the good inside 20 minutes. Then came high-scoring, narrow wins at Fulham (3-2) and at home to Swansea (4-3), games in which Liverpool were sublime in attack and porous at the back. It was after those close calls that their performances really took off. Southampton and Man United were both dispatched 3-0 on their respective grounds before a crazy 6-3 win at Cardiff.
A hard-fought 2-1 home win over Sunderland preceded a 4-0 thumping of Tottenham, by which stage Liverpool had become favourites for the league. While Reds fans began to truly dream of the title, neutral observers questioned whether they would have the bottle to seal the deal. They beat West Ham 2-1 away to make it nine wins in a row, although there were signs of anxiety in the performance. A week later came the memorable 3-2 triumph over Man City, a potentially decisive victory but one where Liverpool were left hanging on for the final whistle. The 11th consecutive win was the aforementioned 3-2 away to Norwich, when the Reds defence again went walkabout and only the Canaries’ charity at the back prevented them from taking the visitors’ scalp.
Nobody needs reminding of the two games which scuppered Liverpool’s season, the 0-2 loss to Chelsea and kamikaze 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace. Once the euphoria of the winning run had died down, there was a sense that Rodgers’ team were increasingly likely to crack before they ultimately did.
2014-15: 13 unbeaten
Prior to the winning run in spring 2014, Liverpool were in a healthy league position. In their last game before the unbeaten streak this season, a 3-0 hammering at Man United left the Reds in 11th. They looked set for an eighth league defeat in 17 (16 when you factor in an opening day win) a week later at home to Arsenal, the same fixture which began the 11-game title-chasing sequence a few months earlier, until Martin Skrtel’s 97th-minute equaliser.
A resilient 1-0 win at Burnley was followed by an impressive 4-1 dismantling of Swansea, but then the Reds let two points and a two-goal lead slip at home to Leicester. Away 1-0 wins over Sunderland and Aston Villa got the show back on the road and a 2-0 defeat of West Ham had the Reds suddenly looking at the possibility of a top four finish. A tepid goalless draw at Everton was a fourth consecutive clean sheet, a run that ended with a tense 3-2 win over Tottenham.
The Reds sent out another statement of intent with a 2-0 victory in Southampton, although the performance was uninspiring and the Saints had three strong penalty appeals turned down. Liverpool’s most impressive display came next, the 2-1 win over Man City, before a 2-0 defeat of Burnley which could be filed under ‘job done’ rather than anything special. The 1-0 victory at Swansea made it 13 without defeat, but the home side ought to have had the points wrapped up before Jordan Henderson’s fortuitous winning goal.
The belief was palpable before the visit of Man United, who had been the last team to inflict a league defeat on Liverpool a full three months previously, but as against Chelsea last April, the Merseysiders again played into the hands of their opponents. Man United were good value for their victory and, with another crunch game at Arsenal following up, Liverpool were all at sea. The 4-1 thrashing confirmed that the bubble had well and truly burst.
It is easy to talk after the facts, but the sense of deja vu is evident – a hopeful beginning, a feeling of near-invicibility once the sequence reached five or six, loose talk of a return to greater things, an unconvincing continuation of the sequence before the crushing fall. In the space of two weeks, Liverpool have gone from genuine contenders for a Champions League place to being doubtful even for a Europa League finish. Sixth will be good enough to qualify for Europe’s secondary competition next season – possibly seventh, and also possibly through the FA Cup if the Reds can win it out – but ‘sixth’ and ‘good enough’ is not in Liverpool’s DNA. However, unless Rodgers can snap the team out of its sudden downward spiral, sixth may have to be enough. Possibly even worse, especially judging by Saturday’s horror show at the Emirates.
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