The fight for survival could see any three teams from ten go down, while the battle for the top four and Champions League qualification is as competitive as it has been in a long time.
Liverpool were leading the league at one point during the festive period, but found themselves back in fourth only a week or so later, showing just how close it is at the top of the table. Now, after fine performances in recent weeks, they have propelled themselves into not just top four contenders but serious candidates to lift the title.
Brendan Rodgers has done a magnificent job since his arrival from Swansea 20 months ago. Many people saw it as a gamble for Anfield to appoint such a young manager but I always felt that, on the basis of the job he’d done at Swansea, allied to his footballing philosophies, Rodgers could write a new and exciting chapter in this great club’s history.
He has had to make some big decisions along the way and has shown that he is more than capable of doing so. After inheriting a squad of players that was put together to play a different style of football to his, there were always going to be casualties. In his first 12 months he has done a lot of wheeling and dealing and been ruthless when required, moving on players such as Andy Carroll, Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, Pepa Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Joe Cole, Alberto Aquilani and Jonjo Shelvey. And, although not all of his signings have been huge successes, he has made some key additions to the squad to ensure he gets his team playing the way he wants.
The most shrewd and significant acquisitions have been Daniel Sturridge and Philip Coutinho.
Coutinho was a player with a reputation for having great potential but hadn’t shown enough of it at Inter Milan, so Liverpool were able to take advantage by striking a deal for what, in hindsight, was a bargain €10m. I was a little worried he might struggle with the physicality of the Premier League but he is a tough little character and, anyway, such is his intelligence, he rarely needs to get involved in that side of the game. He has been a revelation at Anfield and is instrumental in the way they have been playing this season, constantly looking for the killer pass when Suarez or Sturridge make their runs.
Sturridge was another clever signing by Brendan Rogers. He hadn’t really settled at either Man City or Chelsea but, under the close guidance of the Liverpool manager, has been transformed into one of the Premier League’s most formidable strikers, scoring a staggering 26 goals in his 32 appearances for his club to date, as well and cementing his place in the England team.
The aspect of Rodgers’ DNA which I like most is that he has shown he can improve players by working with them on a daily basis on the training ground. He had done it before at Swansea with players like Leon Britton and Joe Allen, and now at Liverpool, the same effect is evident in the huge progress made by Jordan Henderson in the last 12 months. Most managers rely on the transfer market to improve their squads but very few actually have a look at what they already have at the club and see how they can improve them over a period of six, 12 or 18 months. Rodgers has done precisely that, and not just in terms of the younger players — he has even tweaked and improved Steven Gerrard’s contribution to the side, as he now plays the deeper role in midfield to great effect as he enters the twilight of his career.
Of course, Luis Suarez has quite rightly had all the plaudits this season. The quality of his play is so outstanding and his performance level is so consistent that he has unquestionably entered the ‘world class’. Yet he too is another who can be said to have had benefited from Rogers’ tactics and coaching, not to mention the fact that the club stood by him through some tricky issues.
Tomorrow, Liverpool face a wounded Arsenal side in the last 16 of the FA Cup. When a side gives you a going over, like Liverpool did to Arsenal last weekend, there is always a desire for revenge in the minds of the losers. Normally you have to wait months for the reverse fixture but in this case, it’s been only a matter of days, so I would expect this to be a very good game.
We are now getting to the crunch stage of the season and, with Liverpool not having European football on the agenda, they are well-placed to push on in both the Premier League and FA Cup. But in this tightest of seasons, we have already seen how one bad result can destabilise a team. To keep their momentum going, Liverpool need to beat Arsenal in the cup and then make sure they avoid any slip-ups in the league, otherwise a season of so much promise could yet turn into another of despair.