Did you see it? Something happened with Lazar Markovic last week. Whilst we were busy getting our collective jimmies in a rustle over managerial issues like squad selections and transfer strategies, Liverpool's #50 was quietly off in his own little world, marrying form to function. To paraphrase Shankly, a lot of football is in the mind. You must actually believe yourself to be the best before you can prove it. And belief seems to have clicked into place in Markovic's mind.
Exhibit A for the young Serbian's recent rise is his impact in that second half against Basel:
45th minute - First touches of the game come on a flying run and cross right down the throat of Basel's left side.
48th minute - Delicious one touch passing exchange in tight quarters.
49th minute - Incisive pass deep into the right flank.
52nd minute - Pace in possession, does two marks twice over in midfield before getting caught over dribbling, and being dispossessed from behind.
53rd minute - More delicious involvement in some one touch triangular passing to get out of a Basel press.
56th minute - Intricate possession in tight space allows him to shake his markers.
57th minute - Skins the LB, drifts inside the right channel and sets up what should have been a better shot from the top of the box.
58th minute - Takes advantage of the space now given to him by defenders to deliver an early peach into the heart of the defensive midfield area.
60th minute - Red card.
Call it what you will, that's an impact. The entire complexion of the game changed, for better and then for worse in that 15 minute Lazar show. Basel's left flank was under siege, the shape of the game visibly skewing towards the Serbian. With Moreno's pace on the left compounding the issue, the increased havoc being wreaked on the right created open spaces in the middle of the field where there hadn't been any before. We'll never know if that space, combined with Moreno's deep running and Dreem's off the shoulder movements, would have led to a goal had Markovic remained on, but before he was sent off it had begun to look as though it might. As proper Red men and women, you may be thinking to yourself, Sure, that was nice, but even Mark Gonzalez had his day in the sun. And while this is undeniably true, there are a couple of things that feel important about this performance.
Firstly, he's been threatening it since he arrived. Nearly every cameo appearance this year from Markovic has come with a play that was nearly there. Too much air under the ball here, too heavy a touch there, not quite enough anticipation. But the flashes have always shown skill, smarts, and a willingness to try for the spectacular. The first run out in the league, the first european taste in Red, the Sunderland spell - this is the context the player was building.
Secondly, the Basel appearance came with the play flowing through Markovic. Having taken off the (admittedly blunt) reference of a center forward and replaced it with Sterling, Rodgers was changing the angles of approach to areas Basel had so effectively clogged up. It was an awkward positional fit to begin with, as Sterling is not a striker, but had he left him up top, and not stretched the defense out somehow, there would have been no hope for success. And Liverpool had more than hope: they looked an actual threat.
Perhaps it was because the Sterling gamble had such a clear downside. Perhaps it was because Rodgers conveyed his tactical message so clearly. Or perhaps Markovic just enjoyed the cold rain under the Anfield lights. Whatever the reason, Lazar was no longer trying to find his place on the fringes of an obscured offensive jumble. He was instead the notable center of attention as he gave and received passes, controlled the ball, and made himself constantly available.
Now, a dumb red card is dumb and is a red card, but it's indicative of the hold Markovic had over proceedings that the only period that approached the same sort of Liverpool dominance in that game as in his 15 minutes on the pitch came after the inspired and inspiring Gerrard equalizer. If we are a soul searching side looking to renovate our dilapidated offensive structure, then that fact, that impact, seems something worth exploring with greater purpose.
Alongside the desperate need for the squad to start showing signs of life, there is also an organizational need for Markovic to go from blueprint signing to flagship signing. Providing a platform to explode for young talent from around the globe may be the most sustainable, realistic way for LFC to climb back to the heights its history warrants. We can't compete with teams like Chelsea for a 40m quid global superstar, nor can we absorb a 40m quid flop - these are the breaks. At 20m pounds plus wages, Lazar is probably towards the higher end of what we can swallow if he flops, but he's also at the top end of potential returns if he hits big. Shepherding his progression along to ensure maximum return is critical.
And so building on the last week seems an opportunity to galvanize Markovic's progression. The clear and present danger he provided when Liverpool's game flowed through him should be encouraged. He looked calmer in that role than he had in any other of the bit-part cameos he's been thrown in to this season. Playing deliberately, but at pace - Lazar wouldn't be the first great player to exhibit this trait, but can he be the next?
Combined with the Sunderland display, and further garbage time quality during Sunday's Match That Must Not Be Named, what we are seeing is, one hopes, more than a promising flash of skill. It could be a watershed moment for an on deck star. With Sterling overburdened, Sturridge permacrocked, and Lallana inexplicably not a trusted agent, Liverpool need what Markovic offers. In Spanish it's called a desequilibrante - the contribution that unbalances the opposition. As nauseatingly unbalanced as the Reds have been this season, it would be nice to impose the feeling on our opponents for a change.
But we digress - the hair. Not terrible, but it's not giving us discounted Tap Out gear levels of excitement. That hair isn't giving made men knowing nods as it enters the Copacabana through the back door in one continuous take. It's not inspiring people to risk the wrath of mechanical sentinels in order to pull it out of the ignorant bliss of the Matrix. If the 6-fingered man were to unfairly kill that do's father, that man is unlikely to be obliged to prepare for his death in retribution is all we're saying.
Hairspray proposes a Roger Federer workout plan for young Markovic. Dropping that shoulder-length Sampson and finding a more mature medium length seems like it'd suit the Serbian just fine. Do that and we may just throw together some lemon-spritzed, tempura-battered Lourenço Marques calamari with home made peri-peri sauce for the lad. Go full Federer, Lazar, and thank us later. But until then, keep doing Fowler's work with those Mizunos.