Brendan Rodgers's 'chihuahuas' have the best striker in the Premier League and a good work ethic but countered by a vulnerable defence and lack of strength in depth
Brendan Rodgers likened Liverpool to "chihuahuas that run in between the horses' legs" in the increasingly bizarre, animalistic title race that no one appears to want to win. But even chihuahuas are known to bite. A stoppage-time win at Fulham in midweek, combined with draws for Chelsea and Arsenal, brought Liverpool to within four points of the Premier League summit. Their manager insists Liverpool are outsiders for a first league title in 24 years but momentum is with them. Here we consider why Liverpool may, or may not, go the distance …
The reason Rodgers's team find themselves where they are today. Liverpool's manager maintains his system is not built around one player, and that many can prosper from the team's relentless, aggressive attacking style, but no player has carried more of a consistent threat this season than the phenomenal Luis Suárez. The statistics are staggering enough – 23 goals in 24 appearances from Suárez, 19 goals in 21 club games for Daniel Sturridge – but the Uruguay international has also offered a new-found maturity and assumed more of a leadership role, without curbing his individual brilliance. Sturridge has sharpened the penetration of the Liverpool front line and whether obliterating Arsenal and Everton in sensational first-half displays at Anfield or creating comebacks against Fulham or Aston Villa, together they have shown an opponent can never be comfortable in their company. A formidable attack can cover a multitude of weaknesses in this Premier League and Liverpool's delivers with unerring regularity.
It caused a jolt to hear the manager of a club with five European Cups claim last season that Liverpool would benefit from a campaign without European football but Rodgers has been proved correct. The relative lack of depth in the Liverpool squad – as much to do with another wasteful summer in the transfer market as the finances behind their rivals – has not been exposed as it might have been with Champions or Europa League commitments and their schedule has kept key players fresh. As the final third of the season opens, Liverpool have played 30 matches in total compared to Manchester City's 39 and 38 for Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Liverpool have stayed in contention during the break in European football and its return next week, with the prospect of Bayern Munich and Barcelona inflicting a psychological as well as physical blow on two teams above them, should increase Anfield's hopes of reeling in the horses.
It is difficult and has been impossible on occasions for a Liverpool manager to keep expectations in check when a good run or a disappointing result sparks extreme reactions. Rodgers can stray into hyperbole about his players (and as long as they vindicate his confidence with results, who cares?) but has been refreshingly realistic about the title. Liverpool were not under pressure to win the league this season, unlike at City, Chelsea and gradually at Arsenal, and their manager has ensured it stays that way while players improve under the style he has implemented over 18 months. Swansea City, when winning promotion to the Premier League, and Liverpool last season both finished strongly under Rodgers, whose tactical intelligence has been further underlined by Steven Gerrard's recent shift into a holding midfield role. After a few adjustments the captain's influence is soaring once more and, as Fulham discovered, Gerrard's ability to inspire a recovery does not belong to the past.
Fulham also discovered Liverpool's weak point – a fragile and occasionally error-prone defence, one that was indebted to the team's attacking power yet again at Craven Cottage. Given Liverpool's quality up top it is perhaps understandable their defenders pale in comparison and, in fairness, only the recently free-scoring Manchester City have a superior goal difference this season. Injury, form and Rodgers's ongoing search for a settled pairing in central defence have caused disruption to Liverpool's rearguard and only Martin Skrtel has shown the consistency required for a title contender, his slip at Fulham and Jon Flanagan's recent emergence notwithstanding. The relationship between summer signing Simon Mignolet in goal and his varying defenders has been found wanting at times, while the recent reliance on Kolo Touré and Aly Cissokho has tried the blood pressure. That may be coming to an end, however, with Daniel Agger returning from injury in the closing stages on Wednesday and Mamadou Sakho, plus Glen Johnson, close to following suit.
The strongest argument in favour of Rodgers's appraisal of the title. While it was refreshing to see the highly rated Portuguese playmaker João Teixeira make his Liverpool debut as a substitute against Fulham, there was a lack of trusted match-changing options alongside the 21-year-old on the bench. So far, with Sturridge to the fore when Suárez completed a suspension at the start of the season and vice-versa when the England international was sidelined by an ankle injury, Rodgers's concern about squad strength has not been realised. With only 12 league matches remaining he can only pray he stays that way. Liverpool's progress under Rodgers is impressive by any standards but particularly when considering that only one of his four transfer windows as manager – January 2013 – has been an unqualified success. On the flip side, Liverpool's team spirit and character has improved around an established core and – without the distractions of Europe or Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United – the finishing line is clearly in sight.