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The Case for the Defence: How Liverpool Got Their Groove Back

What looked like a minor disaster of a season three months ago could turn out to be an unqualified success by the end of May - and leave them set up for a genuine title push next season. Watch out.

​There's something special about Liverpool as a club. They've got Anfield, history and heart. They're everyone's second team, unless you're an Everton fan. They play their football the 'Liverpool way' and woe betide anyone who tries to stop them.


See, it's kind of hard to reconcile that with the outpouring of sheer joy on social media every time the club loses, or goes on a bad run. Other big clubs get the same treatment occasionally - a lot of people enjoyed Manchester United's Moyes era, after all - but Liverpool seem to be singled out for special treatment.

It's all gone very quiet on my Twitter feed since Christmas.

Yes, it's happened again, just like it did last season - Liverpool have gotten good after Christmas. Is it something about Brendan Rodgers? Has he found some way to give all of his players a wrapped-up box of the intangible concept of 'form' during the festive season?

It's not just a gradual improvement, either. In the two months leading up to Christmas, the Reds won just two of their nine Premier League games. Since then, they've won eight out of ten, and drawn the other two. They've started playing with swagger, purpose and quality.

Some people are putting the improvement down to the return of Daniel Sturridge, but that analysis is misguided, as well as lazy.

In fact, the sudden upturn in form seems to be despite Sturridge's return, rather than because of it. For a start, he only came back a month ago. He did make an immediate impact - scoring to seal a 2-0 win over West Ham - but he went goalless in the league throughout February.

He's been largely limited to ineffectual substitute appearances and has actually started to look further off the pace as time has gone on. No doubt he'll come good again soon, but he's not the reason for this resurgence.

Somehow, Brendan Rodgers has turned one of Liverpool's weakest areas into their strongest - the defence is on fire. Skrtel, Can, Sakho and even the calamitous Dejan Lovren have seen a sharp upturn in their personal performances in the last couple of months and it's made all the difference.

Switching to a back three hasn't been the easiest of transitions, but something seems to have finally clicked. If Rodgers were playing the long game, willing to sacrifice a few months for long-term success, then he might have pulled off a masterstroke. If he was just being stubborn and sticking with a formation that he believed in, well, it still worked.

Any new defensive system takes some time to set up, especially with two new signings at the heart of it. Doubly so when one of those new signings was a 20-year-old midfielder who got shunted into a centre-back role by circumstance.

Despite the relatively unfamiliar position, Can has been absolutely pivotal in the Reds' success - not just for his work in retrieving the ball from opposition players, but in his distribution. For the first part of the season, Liverpool's attacks were slow and ponderous, despite their plethora of lightning-fast attacking players.

With Can settled in his role, his midfield experience is starting to show in his distribution. The difference is stark, with defence becoming attack in a flash and Liverpool's pacey wingers get far more chances to stretch their legs again off-guard defenders.

It's led to defenders starting to drop back a little against the Reds now - which gives Philippe Coutinho the room to work his magic. And boy, is it ever magical.

Last season, Liverpool went undefeated between New Years Day and the last weekend of April - 16 games in all - mounting a serious title challenge along the way.

That title slipped away from them in the end and Chelsea are surely too far ahead to be caught this season, but Liverpool could yet conceivably secure consecutive second place finishes in the league. The gap of seven points to Manchester City is easily overhauled in 11 games, especially with City looking shaky - and an FA Cup triumph is still very much on the cards too.

What looked like a minor disaster of a season three months ago could turn out to be an unqualified success by the end of May - and leave them set up for a genuine title push next season. Watch out.

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