The story ahead of Liverpool’s Sunday visit to West Ham was the absence of their only goalscorer, but after an impressive comeback win over the Hammers, the narrative has becoming one of expectations. Liverpool was supposed to be playing this way all along, the Rodgers Revolution set to bring substance along with style. Few begrudged the Swansea import his slow start, but after a trip to Upton Park that produced one of Liverpool’s best performances of the year, fans would be right to wonder if their Reds have turned a corner. Is something finally clicking?
Glen Johnson got Liverpool on the board early with what’s becoming a very Glen Johnson goal – a blast from the edge of the area from just to the right of goal. Liverpool gave two goals back – a tough hand ball called for a penalty followed by an own goal from Steven Gerrard – before a well-built Joe Cole equalizer started the Reds’ comeback. Their winning goal was credited to West Ham’s James Collins, but given the buildup that led to the winner, Liverpool would be right to take full the credit for the goal (as Jonjo Shelvey did while celebrating the score). With their 3-2 win, the Reds jump into the table’s top half, sitting 10th with 22 points.
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It was what the club wanted when they brought in The Brendan Rodgers Football Project, a product that really started to shine after Joe Cole came on for José Enrique in the 22nd minute. With Jonjo Shelvey playing through the middle in place of the suspended Luis Suárez, Liverpool had the movement and freedom to play with the fluidity that Rodgers wants. It was only after watching them perform without Suárez that you realized their dependence on him has turned into a lack of confidence. When they went from having to get the ball to their dangerman to not being able to, Liverpool came to life.
Much of the play went through Raheem Sterling on the left. Shelvey challenged the left channel, opening space for Cole behind. The setup combined for perfect execution on Liverpool’s equalizing goal, Shelvey dropping from Collins to open space in the middle before Sterling found Cole.
Can Liverpool carry this forward once Suárez returns? It doesn’t seem that difficult. There’s nothing that Shelvey did today that Suárez is incapable of going. If anything, Shelvey’s success as the number nine could make life easier for the first choice striker. Whereas Liverpool often presses to get the ball to Suárez – playing hopeful balls into innocuous spots knowing Suárez can make them dangerous – Sunday’s success may encourage Sterling and the other attackers to take more of the work on themselves. If they can prove dangerous independent of Suárez, the quality of Suárez’s chances could improve. The only drawback: There doesn’t appear to be a natural place for Shelvey.
Some may point out that the performance came against West Ham – a good team, but one whose personnel choices make them particularly susceptible to Liverpool’s style. If Brendan Rodgers’ approach can’t succeed against Sam Allardyce’s, especially after Mohamed Diamé leaves injured, then there’s no hope, right? While there’s some truth to that, it also unduly leans on the caricature of the Hammers being a bunch of ball-hoofing thugs. It also fails to recognize that (at least in defense) a lot of Premier League teams resemble Big Sam’s.
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If this type of performance becomes the norm for Liverpool – if they bring Suárez back in and start playing with him, not to him – the team will compete for Europe. With Lucas Leiva back, they have their full midfield in tow. Once Fabio Borini recovers from his foot injury, the attacks corps will be at full strength. Only two points back of seventh with a kind fixture list until Jan. 13’s trip to Manchester United, the Reds may be ready to make a run.