Thanks to the match against Newcastle on Monday, Liverpool have now managed thirteen clean sheet in the thirty-two games they've played so far in the league, or about 40.6%. That statistic is one that has been bandied about a lot lately, along with the fact that the team maintained a streak of six away games in a row without conceding. To any Liverpool fan without some sort of short-term memory loss issues, it's a striking fact considering the abysmal start to the season that the team had (and you'd be entirely forgiven for going all Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind on the months of September through November).
In fact, nine of those thirteen clean sheets came in the fourteen games since Christmas. And of the four they managed in the fall, only two of them resulted in a win. The other two - Hull and Sunderland at home - were goalless draws that felt like spending ninety minutes watching the United States Congress in session: dull, frustrating and ultimately accomplishing nothing. On the other hand, Liverpool won eight out of the nine games since Christmas when they didn't concede, with the Everton match being the only, disappointing exception.
The list of clean sheets per team this season shows Southampton as an outlier in the top spot, having prevented the opposition from scoring fifteen times this season. After them, though, the list becomes awfully familiar: Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Manchester City and then Liverpool. Scoring a glut of goals may be sexier and make for a more entertaining game, but real success comes when teams can balance those impressive victories with gutting out the ugly one-nils.
In the first half of the season, Liverpool had trouble finding the back of the net, but it was their gaping, disastrous defense that was the real concern. That Brendan Rodgers found a way to fix the problem was both a testament to his tactical nous and an indictment on his bullheadedness, for it having taken him so long to address such a glaring problem in the first place.
I'll leave my criticism of the boss for another time and focus instead on the reversal of fortune that Liverpool had in the second half of the season. To manage a defensive turnaround that impressive doesn't come from luck or galvanization alone. It requires a significant change in either personnel or formation - well, and maybe a little luck. The universe provided that third one while Rodgers took care of the first two. He moved to a back three, reintroduced Mamadou Sakho to the team after he was out for much of the season due to injury, and experimented with the dashing Emre Can as a center back. The under-performing Dejan Lovren and Glen Johnson were relegated to the bench and, in Johnson's case, the treatment table.
The entire team has benefitted from this change of formation, but none moreso than Liverpool's beleaguered keeper, Simon Mignolet. During the darkest periods of October and November, Mignolet came under heavy criticism from every corner. Even I may have, on this very site, claimed that watching Mignolet play with the ball at his feet was like watching "a baby fawn taking its first, tentative steps."
Rodgers's subsequent decision to pull Mignolet in favor of Brad Jones was derided by fans, not because they thought that Mignolet deserved to keep his place, but rather because of the comparative skills of back-up Brad Jones. The choice to deploy this new strategy in time for the Manchester United and Arsenal games didn't have the immediate, intended effect - Liverpool only managed one point from those two games. Brad Jones, while not terrible, was a bit hard done by, having been thrown to the wolves and guaranteed to have his every action scrutinized in light of the controversy surrounding his involvement.
However, if Rodgers had hoped Mignolet's removal would force the keeper to re-evaluate his position within the side and up his game, then that seemed to work wonders. Swansea at home was Mignolet's first full game back after Brad Jones's injury, and it coincided with our introduction to the Skrtel-Can-Sakho back three. Liverpool battered the Swans, winning 4-1 and beginning a strong run of games that carried the team through to the spring. Mignolet, in particular, has showed a return to the more confident player we saw last season. He's been near the top of the list for man of the match in nearly every game since his return. So was Rodgers's move another stroke of genius, or was the manager simply lucky that Mignolet's return coincided with the deployment of his new formation?
I think that a person has to be just a little bit crazy to become a goalkeeper. Their successes, celebrated in the moment, are often forgotten as the game progresses, while any mistakes they make get etched in the score line for posterity. A successful defense requires a strong understanding between the keeper and the back line. When, as with earlier in the season, a keeper doesn't feel comfortable passing to his center backs, or when the defenders can't count on their keeper to protect his area, it creates a constant feedback loop of second-guessing and bad decision-making. The second half of the season displayed all of the cohesion that the first half lacked, and it showed in the performances of the players and in the final score line.
In the last few weeks there's been a shake up to the team's successful system due to suspensions and injuries, but retaining that cohesion will be critical for the rest of the season. There's still a trophy to play for and fourth place, while unlikely, is not yet out of reach. Mignolet put in two commanding performances against Blackburn and Newcastle, but a trip to Wembley to play Aston Villa is next for the team, and they'll be without the considerable talent and leadership of Mamadou Sakho. With any luck, Mignolet will continue to maintain his current level of play, so that for the last month while our defense continues its awkward shifting, he can be the strong constant in the back.