Watching Liverpool’s title charge unfold this season has been remarkable -- Brendan Rodgers’ side have progressed from no-hopers, to outsiders, to dark horses, to challengers, to contenders, to nailed-on favourites.
Most observers predicted Liverpool would have an uphill struggle to reach the Champions League places this season, yet four games from the end of the season, a first Premier League title is now widely anticipated.
Liverpool’s destiny is in their own hands: four wins and the title is theirs. Three wins and a draw against Chelsea, and they will also triumph. A win against Chelsea, and they could probably afford to slip up elsewhere. It seems bizarre that Liverpool not winning this season’s Premier League title would be regarded as a failure, considering expectations at the start of the campaign ... but this is too strong a position to let it slip.
One of the fascinating things about Rodgers’ approach in recent months has been the variety of systems he has used, often outfoxing opponents with surprise formations, which is partly why Liverpool boast the best home record in the division. Here’s a look at how Rodgers might format his team for Liverpool’s final four matches.
Game 35: Norwich City (away)
Positive factors: Luis Suarez’s excellent record against Norwich, and the fact that the Canaries have won just one of their last seven games.
Negative factors: Jordan Henderson is suspended, and Daniel Sturridge is doubtful through injury.
Previously Norwich were the Premier League’s most predictable side under Chris Hughton, but the recent appointment of Neil Adams might give the Canaries a lift. Nevertheless, Rodgers shouldn’t have to worry about Norwich’s tactics in the buildup to this contest, and it’s really about how he can compensate for the absences of Henderson and Sturridge.
Henderson’s absence is a big blow, because it means Rodgers is forced to give his midfield a more cautious tilt, regardless of whether he plays Joe Allen or Lucas Leiva instead. It means Coutinho will be extremely important at connecting the midfield and attack.
If Sturridge doesn’t make the game, Rodgers will be tempted to revert to the 4-3-3 formation. Liverpool don’t possess another striker good enough to justify playing two up front with a diamond midfield, and it would make more sense for Sterling to return to the flank, possibly with Victor Moses playing on the opposite side.
The key, ultimately, is to get the ball to Suarez as often as possible. Eleven goals in his last four games against Norwich, including three hat tricks, means Adams' side will be terrified of the Uruguayan, and he could win this game solo.
Game 36: Chelsea (home)
Positive factors: A draw would suit Liverpool, and the Premier League’s latest 'title decider' being at Anfield is a big boost.
Negative factors: Suarez hasn’t scored against another top-four side this season, and Henderson’s absence might be more significant in such a big game.
In Liverpool’s most important remaining game, Rodgers will face his toughest tactical test of the season.
Chelsea have generally excelled against strong opposition because they’re so dangerous on the break, with the 1-0 win over Manchester City particularly impressive, and the 6-0 thrashing of Arsenal a more brutal demonstration of their power and speed. The danger, clearly, is that Liverpool will start the match by dominating, and leave space to break into.
This calls for a more cautious approach, and while Rodgers will unquestionably insist his side won’t play for a draw, that outcome will be in the back of his mind. Here, a diamond midfield makes more sense against a side that are extremely strong in that zone, and Rodgers probably won’t mind leaving Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta free -- it’s a small price to pay for a midfield advantage, and the fact that Chelsea won’t have a spare man against the SAS.
This match might call for the reintroduction of Lucas Leiva, who has made only sporadic appearances since returning from injury -- but his defensive discipline has been crucial. Against Stoke City in January, his final complete match before injury, and as a substitute against West Ham last weekend, Lucas played slightly in advance of Steven Gerrard, who remained the deepest-lying midfielder. This might be a neat compromise -- Rodgers needs more steel in midfield but doesn’t want to alter Gerrard’s game, considering his excellent form.
Suarez and Sturridge will be able to work as a duo against Chelsea’s centre-backs, and their pace should be able to present Liverpool with clear goal-scoring chances.
Game 37: Crystal Palace (away)
Positive factors: Palace will be safe by this stage, with little to play for.
Negative factors: Palace’s defensive record is superb, and they’ve won their last four games.
Liverpool will be up against a side that is likely to sit extremely deep. Rodgers’ side will be assured of possession dominance, but must ensure the tempo of their passing is quick enough to constantly shift Palace’s defenders around -- when opponents pass slowly, it’s clear Tony Pulis has his players excellently drilled.
The diamond probably remains a better bet here, because it will allow the full-backs to push forward and provide the width to stretch Palace’s defence, while featuring three key attackers in central positions, ready to provide the goals.
Henderson will still be absent, and like against Norwich, Rodgers will be concerned that his side will lack constant forward running from midfield. Get an early goal, and Liverpool will be fine -- but if it’s 0-0 after half an hour, it could turn into the most frustrating game of the campaign.
Game 38: Newcastle (home)
Positive factors: Henderson will have returned from suspension, and Newcastle have lost their last four.
Negative factors: The pressure.
For the past two months, this has seemed the ideal final game for Liverpool. No other side has been more despondent in the second half of the campaign than Newcastle, who seemed to view the loss of Yohan Cabaye as the end of their season. Some of the performances since then have, frankly, suggested they don’t care. This would be particularly helpful for Liverpool, of course, in the unlikely event they need to boost their goal difference.
There’s also the possibility a draw would seal the title, but Liverpool will go all out for the victory.
Rodgers will want to field his most attacking team, which means Gerard, Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling, Sturridge and Suarez reunited for the first time since last weekend’s win over Manchester City, although previous performances will dictate whether it’s a 4-3-3 or the midfield diamond -- Sterling’s impressive versatility means either are possible with this personnel.
The major problem, however, is the pressure.
Two seasons ago Manchester City had the best home record in the division, and simply had to win at home to QPR, who had the worst away record in the division, to win the league -- yet were trailing going into stoppage time against ten men. Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero’s heroics saved them, of course, but the pressure was obvious.
Then again, QPR were playing for survival. Newcastle don’t care. If Liverpool reach the final day needing a win -- the greater dangers lie in the two previous games.