Is there anyone happier in English football right now than Brendan Rodgers?
The title is within touching distance for Liverpool and yet, having started the season with merely a European qualification brief, the accompanying pressure is off. This is a manager and a team playing football as if they actually enjoy it, and scoring for fun too.
All the pieces of the puzzle at Liverpool have fallen into place, in a way that few – even the most optimistic Reds – could have predicted. For the first time since that tantalisingly close second place back in 2009, there’s ample reason to believe that the elusive golden sky at the end of the storm could actually be right around the corner.
What is it exactly that has seen Liverpool soar from a seventh place finish last year, to being on course to end a 24 year wait for Premier League glory? I’m not sure even Rodgers himself knows the answer to that. But the path that he set the team on in the summer of 2012 is taking shape and the picture of Liverpool which emerges is an immensely flattering one.
Squad wise, Liverpool have fallen in line with a 2013/14 Premier League trend of slightly older squads, having had the league’s youngest team last year with an average age of 23.6. This year, that title goes to Aston Villa, with an average age of 25.2, while Liverpool have the third youngest at 26.2.
Many of Liverpool’s bright young academy prospects, such as Suso and Conor Coady, have been loaned out for some much-needed experience, while Rodgers strengthened the first team squad with the introductions of older players such as Kolo Toure (33).
Keeping Luis Suarez has proved paramount to the club’s success. With 30 goals, he accounts for just under a third of Liverpool’s entire goal tally for the season. That, and almost a year since his last Workplace Incident, there’s barely been a nibble out of him.
Not only does he lead the Premier League top scorers chart, he’s also topping the European league goals table – ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Lionel Messi. He heads up the Premier League assists records with 11.
Hot on his heels is Daniel Sturridge, who has 20 goals and is second in the league in terms of scoring. Between them, they’ve scored as many goals as the entire Everton squad combined.
Overall, Rodgers has managed to solve Liverpool’s most troublesome weakness – a finishing shortfall which resulted in paltry chance conversion rates in 2011/12 and 2012/13 of 10 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.
This season to date, they have converted 22 per cent of their chances. Although they make slightly less chances overall per game than they have in the last two years, this new cutting edge in front of goal has reaped obvious dividends.
Add to that their dramatic increase in goals scored from set pieces – 29 this season up from 16 last season – and you have a well-oiled, goal-scoring machine of a team. In fact, they have only failed to score on two occasions in 32 games.
Rodgers has also worked wonders with Liverpool’s passing (although it was never really all that bad to begin with). They make more passes now on average per game than in 2012 and 2013, averaging 586 overall with a completion rate of 84 per cent.
The key to Liverpool’s success has been versatility. Since August, we’ve been treated to a veritable feast of formations, including 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 3-5-2, delicately balanced to suit the needs of the match (and the players) at hand.
Suarez can pop up just about anywhere on the pitch, and the same goes for Sturridge and Gerrard. Plus, by capitalising on the attacking qualities of full-backs Glen Johnson and rising star John Flanagan, Rodgers has allowed Jordan Henderson to take a more central, dynamic role alongside Gerrard and just behind the strikers. His hefty £16m transfer fee back in 2011 seems like a small price to pay for his contribution this season, which includes four goals and seven assists.