Before Liverpool faced West Ham at Upton Park last Sunday, Brendan Rodgers’ side had collected 19 points from 15 games. A pretty uninspiring tally, truth be told, and, at the same stage in the 10/11 season, the Reds had accumulated an identical number of points in their first 15 games under Roy Hodgson. However, their standings amongst the Anfield faithful could not be more different: Hodgson was treated with complete antipathy, showing Freddy Krueger how to really make a nightmare become very real and leaving fans wanting to never wake up; Rodgers, though, has overcome the initial trials and tribulations and is finally showing his mettle, and his side are starting to show their true class.
I’ve been rather vocal about my support for Rodgers and the need for him to be given the time and resources to do this job to the best of his ability, but even his most ardent advocates couldn’t argue that sometimes his middle-management motivational spiel gets a bit much. The man likes to talk, which is perfectly fine; he has the gift of the gab. But sometimes he comes out with a ridiculously cringeworthy line that comes straight out of the ‘David Brent’s Management Bible’, as was highlighted in the Being: Liverpool documentary series that aired a few months back. “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon, more a silver shovel” is a personal favourite that had me in hysterics at the sheer absurdity of the claim.
Still, his ability to convince people to buy in to his ideas does not just come from his ability as a manager - his way with words has played a key role in his ascendency from youth coach to head coach. So yesterday, when asked in his pre-Villa press conference whether fourth place is still open this season, he responded: "So is third, so is second and maybe even first. I said to the players this morning that everyone talks about fourth place but what about third? We are 11 points off second so, if we can get some consistency, keep our mentality and our focus then it is not fourth place we want to aim for. We have still to play Manchester City and we should have beaten them at home.”
Of course, as is often the case, the media took one part of a quote and ran with it in a completely different context, much to the derision of opposition fans. This was not some bizarre proclamation that people will look back on and laugh at come the season’s end. So instead of looking realistic but still ambitious, Rodgers ends up looking delusional. He followed up that initial quote with: "You want to aim as high as you possibly can but, of course, when the club has been out of the top four for so long, that is the ultimate ambition. But we will not get too carried away. We are not even halfway through the league. We just need to focus day to day on our work, tactically prepare the team, keep confidence high and keep as many players available as we can in order to get results."
There was nothing wrong with what he said. He was not claiming that Liverpool will finish second; hell, he wasn’t even claiming that we’ll finish fourth. All he was saying – or at least trying to say - is that the Premier League is so competitive that it’s difficult for a side to be as dominant throughout a season as it was a few years ago when the ‘big four’ had a strangehold on the league, so if any team can be consistent and put a run of results together, then it’s all to play for. Personally, it’s the sort of thing I want to hear from the manager of my team; fully cognisant of the task at hand, but still looking at the bigger picture and not wanting to settle for just the top four.
Rodgers is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t, really. If he plays down expectations and is overly magnanimous, he’ll be accused of being Hodgson Mk II but with a more aesthetically pleasing yet equally ineffective brand of football; if he’s overly ambitious he’ll be accused of lacking self-awareness and making false promises. But he is fully entitled to be excited about the future; we all are. After the worst start to a season in over a century, and a disastrous end to the summer transfer window, we’re starting to really push on and are picking up the results that we have deserved for most of the season, and we have the perfect opportunity over the next month to put ourselves right in contention for a top four place.
We’re coming in to form at the right time. We’ve lost only once in our last 11 games, have back-to-back Premier League wins for the first time in nearly an entire year, and if we beat Aston Villa today we’ll three consecutive wins, something we’ve not enjoyed since the end of the 10/11 season. Our next five games are Villa (H), Fulham (H), Stoke (A), QPR (A) and Sunderland (H), which, on paper, is a pretty easy run of games – and with European football done and dusted until the spring we can focus entirely on our league form. I’m not one for predicting how many points we should get from those five games, but they’re all very winnable, although Stoke away is just a horrible, horrible game.
After the next month we travel to Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City within four games, which will obviously be incredibly tough - but we proved, even in the infancy of Rodgers’ tenure, that we can compete with the best teams in the country, so if we’re confident and in good form, who knows what could happen. Reinforcements in the January transfer window are an absolute must, and the club could do with announcing at least one signing in the next few weeks to give everyone a lift - much like Everton did with signing of Nikica Jelavic last year; he transformed their form over the second half of the season - rather than leaving it until the final week of January with fans again worrying about who we’ll bring in.
For the past five years Liverpool Football Club has been surrounded in a shroud of misery and self-loathing after the tumultuous reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The disappointment of last season after the return of the King gave us all hope and optimism again further depleted any feelings of good will. But this is now an opportunity to put that behind us and make big strides towards returning to the Champions League. Pick up a few more wins, bring in the cavalry to support Luis Suarez, and who knows where this season will take us.