When I began watching football, one of the most compelling aspects of the game for me was the fact that the season lasted so long. August to May is basically the length of a US television season, which is fitting since each game week brings as many twists and turns as an episode of Lost. (Wait, Arsenal beat Man City -- and what's the deal with that polar bear?) The league even has the built-in sweeps months of December and May. Pundits and journalists do their parts, turning every raindrop of drama into a raging storm of controversy, which fans then eagerly dive into, like storm chasers in Tornado Alley.
That's not me complaining, by the way. I love Liverpool passionately, but I follow the rest of the league the same way that other people follow Grey's Anatomy. I am totally Helen Hunt in that earlier scenario. Looked at as a piece of interactive entertainment, this sport is always captivating, regardless of the results on the score sheets.
It's common to see this lengthy season broken into thirds: the bright optimism of the fall, the dreary slog of the winter, and the final, breathless sprint of the spring. And much like the weather turns, so too do the fortunes of the teams and individuals involved. Heroes become villains become scapegoats become martyrs over the course of a long campaign. (Oh, hey Stevie.)
Liverpool's season began with untenably high expectations. The relief of a shaky opening day victory (which, in retrospect and considering Southampton's form, doesn't seem nearly as unconvincing now) quickly gave way to concern and frustration as Liverpool lost their best player to long-term injury and then results stuttered before dropping off a cliff. With sixteen league fixtures remaining, we've almost made it through the winter deluge of games. The new year has also brought with it a new hope for Liverpool.
Cast your mind back to when Liverpool lost to Manchester United at Old Trafford. The narrative said Liverpool was a team in shambles, helmed by a stubborn manager who was one false move from being sacked. Remember it? Remember how you felt? That was just over a month ago, but it feels more like a year. Since that aggravating day, Liverpool have not lost a single game -- that's nine unbeaten in all competitions.
Somehow, Brendan Rodgers has stumbled onto a formation that works. He certainly took the long way to it. It's my opinion that a big reason he got there at all came down to the perfect storm of Glen Johnson's unfortunate groin injury, Kolo Touré's absence to play in the African Cup of Nations, and Dejan Lovren's poor form. If football really was a television show, I'd call that lazy writing, but no matter. Whatever the precipitating events, Rodgers seems to have righted the ship for the time being.
Liverpool are playing good football again, for the first time in a long time. The Capital One Cup semi-final against Chelsea on Tuesday saw them bossing the league leaders in everything but the final product. Individual players have stood out -- particularly the stunning Emre Can and resurgent Lucas Leiva -- Gerrard's considerable talents have been deployed in the correct ways, and even our much-maligned goalkeeper has caught a break. Liverpool have only conceded eight goals in the past nine games -- hardly a record, but considering the previous, sieve-like quality of the defense, still a stat worth noting. With nineteen shots and six on target against Chelsea, the only reason Liverpool didn't win was because they still lack a consistent, quality goalscorer. But lo, who is that hip-hop loving, God-fearing deus ex machina I see, just returned from sunny California?
Chuck astutely pointed out that Liverpool's next four league games are against West Ham (h), Everton (a), Tottenham (h), and Southampton (a). Three of those games will directly and immediately affect Liverpool's league position, and the other is the derby, with a Europa away fixture thrown in for color. If the last five weeks have been a resurgence for the team, then the next five weeks have the potential to make or break their season.
Either way, there's more than enough time for another dramatic turn of events. In the past, Rodgers had been known for giving players minutes based on performance, but this season he's seemed to rely on experience and seniority. That said, Glen Johnson is back fit and Kolo Touré will soon be returning. Will we see a revert back to a less impressive formation in order to accommodate these players? Will Mamadou Sakho, whom Rodgers had appeared unconvinced by, despite excellent past performances, be sacrificed for Johnson, whom Rodgers has consistently started when fit? I'd like to say that now the manager has found the team's strongest formation, he'll stick to it for the bigger games, but this season there's been a lot of things I've wanted to say.
While it may take a run like last season to ensure a top four spot for Liverpool, reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.