Monday, 1 June 2015

Two steps back: 2014/2015 Season Review

It feels like Liverpool took two steps back this season. The club took one giant leap forward in 2013/2014, beating everyone’s expectations as they finished second and still had a mathematical chance of winning the title on the final day of the campaign after managing only a lowly seventh place finish the season before.

Hopes were high heading into 2014/2015. With Champions League football back at Anfield, the Reds were back where they belong and ready to take another tilt at the title too. That was the theory, at least. In reality, Liverpool’s 2014/2015 season, bar a brilliant but unfortunately comparatively brief resurgence post-Christmas, was one characterised by frustration and disappointment.

In the league, the campaign started slowly. An unconvincing home victory over Southampton on the opening weekend was followed by a comprehensive defeat at Man City’s Etihad Stadium and, although a 3-0 win at White Hart Lane, which included a superb individual effort from new signing Alberto Moreno, raised Reds’ fans hopes that Rodgers’ team would soon re-discover last season’s form, the month of September soon doused any residual optimism; the Reds failed to register a Premier League win, requiring a late Mario Balotelli winner to beat Ludogorets at home in the Champions League and only reaching the fourth round of the League Cup after a marathon penalty shootout against Middlesbrough.

This was a great goal from Moreno early on in the season
Things were seriously not looking good for Liverpool. They badly missed the firepower of the departed Luis Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge, and Rodgers quickly realised that his £16 million gamble on Italian maverick Mario Balotelli wasn’t going to pay off. At the back, meanwhile, Liverpool’s defence was leaking far too many goals, as Dejan Lovren, a £20 million summer signing from Southampton, failed to justify his hugely inflated transfer fee.

Real Madrid showed up in Merseyside in the middle of October and gave Liverpool a footballing lesson as they beat the Reds 3-0, with all three goals coming in 20 devastating first half minutes. It was hoped that the return leg in Spain a fortnight later would be a watershed moment when Liverpool’s season would finally turn a corner. With Chelsea visiting Anfield on the weekend, Rodgers picked a reserve side in the Bernabeu and, against the odds; they put in a fantastic and resilient performance, only losing 1-0 in the end.

It was highly credible considering Liverpool’s starting line-up and form up to that point. It turned out to be one of far too many false downs, though, as things only got worse for the Reds, who crashed out of the Champions League after only managing draws in games that they needed to win against Ludogorets and Basel.

Surprisingly, Liverpool’s turning point came in a manner perhaps nobody expected; a 3-0 defeat at Manchester United. Obviously, it was horrible to lose so comprehensively at Old Trafford, but the result didn’t reflect the balance of play, as Liverpool, perhaps given a much needed kick up the back side by a few unexpected team changes (Brendan Rodgers dropped Simon Mignolet and played Raheem Sterling as a lone striker for the first time), put in an encouraging performance, which included 19 shots, eight more than their hosts. The difference proved to be the goalkeepers, as David de Gea put in a match winning performance, while Brad Jones was below par, if still better than Simon Mignolet had been up to that point.

De Gea denied Liverpool victory, but things were looking up
From that point on, Liverpool slowly but surely improved, showing character to pick up a late point at home to Arsenal and then securing wins over Burnley, Swansea, Sunderland and Aston Villa. In fact, the Reds were producing title winning form; between the defeat at Old Trafford which started Liverpool’s resurgence and the crushing loss at home to Louis Van Gaal’s men, which unceremoniously ended their run of good form at the end of March, Liverpool won 15 out of 23 matches in all competitions, losing only twice.

Those two defeats came in Cup matches against Chelsea and Besiktas, as Liverpool’s focus narrowed to earning Champions League qualification and securing FA Cup success for Steven Gerrard after the news that all Kopites dreaded hearing, namely that the much loved skipper was finally leaving Liverpool, was released in January. With the FA Cup final falling on Gerrard’s birthday, there would have been no better way for Stevie to sign off.

To that end, Philippe Coutinho, a consistent performer whose star was quickly rising to prominence, scored stunning goal after stunning goal to secure Cup progress, firing in against Bolton and Blackburn, as well as against Man City and Southampton in the league. The little Brazilian magician scored eight goals in total, becoming the focal point of Liverpool’s attack and easily taking the Player of the Season award. He also crucially penned a new long-term contract at Liverpool, meaning that Kopites will be able to enjoy his mercurial talent for years to come.

Hopefully there's more of these Coutinho worldies to come
Another key performer was Simon Mignolet, who improved markedly, perhaps even miraculously, during the second half of the season after a woeful first half of the campaign which culminated in his demotion to the bench at Old Trafford and me opining that the end of his time at Anfield was inevitably nigh and that a new keeper had to be brought in promptly. My predictions of his demise clearly turned out to be greatly exaggerated, as he kept 13 clean sheets in all, the same number as Thibaut Courtois and Joe Hart.

Frustratingly, however, Coutinho’s mercurial talent and Mignolet’s suddenly enhanced goalkeeping ability weren’t enough to revive the Reds after two crushing defeats in must win matches against Manchester United and Arsenal. Heading into the United match the Reds were in fifth, two points off their fourth placed rivals from down the M62 and six behind the Gunners, who had played an extra game. After 2-1 and 4-1 reversals, Liverpool were seven points behind fourth placed City, who also had a game in hand on the Reds; fourth was now a pipe dream, and the success of the campaign now came down to whether or not Liverpool could lift the FA Cup on the final weekend of the season.

That didn’t happen, as Liverpool were so shell-shocked by the abrupt halting of their magnificent run of title winning form that they never recovered, putting in a pathetic performance at Wembley against Aston Villa and deservedly losing. The way in which Arsenal dispatched Villa with such consummate ease in what was an entertaining FA Cup final on Saturday serves to show the worrying gulf in class between the Reds and the Gunners.

Perhaps just as discouragingly, the players couldn’t even get up for Steven Gerrard’s final Anfield appearance and last ever Liverpool match, as they lost abysmally at home to Crystal Palace and away to Stoke City in their final two matches.

Gerrard deserved better from his last Liverpool appearances
It was a really depressing way to end a yoyo season that had far more downs than ups and only confirmed that the club has indeed taken two sizeable steps back after appearing to have enjoyed such progress in the previous season.


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