Death. By. Football. Three words that captured the imagination from the moment they left the lips of Brendan Rodgers--a credo tailor-made for banners, it promised to usher in a new (or at least renewed) era of footballing dominance at Liverpool. Resting on the ball, recycling possession, winning it back within the blink of an eye if it's lost. It was exciting stuff, promising an actual approach for a club that had, in terms of a footballing identity, badly lost its way. Early performances fell right in line--Yaya Toure reportedly called the 2-2 draw at Anfield last season his most difficult match since arriving in England-- with the manager's promise, and the future was well and truly upon us.
But as is so often the problem with philosophies and belief systems, reality made devout practice a far greater task than it seemed. Injuries and transfer market failures left the squad shorthanded, and Rodgers' task suddenly became about survival rather than dominance. A difficult fall gave way to a January window that welcomed Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho to Anfield, giving the side more attacking bite but failing to account for the absence of Lucas through injury and Joe Allen through fading form.
The results recovered in spite of the abandoned philosophy and have mostly continued into this winter, Sturridge and Suarez taking turns leading the attack with Coutinho in support, all ahead of a midfield that was rarely close to inflicting a scratch on the opposition let alone a footballing death. Style and substance had yet to be married with any sort of consistency--either across matches or within them--under Rodgers, leaving lingering questions despite collecting an impressive number of points to start the 2013-2014 season.
Then Sunday at White Hart Lane happened. Injuries to Sturridge and Steven Gerrard combined with the resurgent form of Raheem Sterling to allow Rodgers to field a three-man midfield of Lucas, Joe Allen, and Jordan Henderson, with Coutinho and Sterling giving wide support to Suarez up front. What followed was admittedly shambolic from Spurs, but it was also ninety minutes of a footballing funeral for the hosts, who just couldn't cope with a Liverpool side buttressed by an utterly dominant and dynamic midfield trio.
"I thought the three of them and how they complemented each other was outstanding. You had Lucas, who was in that controlling role. He did his job with the ball, moving into different lines to receive it and he was aggressive when he didn't have it. Joe is a dynamic player and he can control the possession while he's being aggressive in his pressure. Jordan is one who is comfortable on the ball with great running ability to get in and get goals. I thought the dynamic of the three was very, very good.
To call them--or pretty much everyone else in the side--"very, very good" does a bit of disservice to a midfield that actually midfielded comprehensively. The Spurs midfield had the physical advantage, but in every other facet of the match, Lucas, Allen, and Henderson were unparalleled. It's essentially the embodiment--which Rodgers notes later in the linked article above--of his comments at the start of last season (start of the interview via RedmenTV):
What makes the discussion uncomfortable is the effect of Gerrard's absence; it's not only that, of course, as Sterling's improved form allowed for Jordan Henderson's move to the middle, and Sturridge's injury layoff means that Suarez can operate as the lone man up top. But Gerrard as an ever-present in the midfield, be it in the place of Allen, Henderson, or Lucas, has rarely occurred with a three-man midfield. That's not to celebrate the captain's injury, only to point out that, if the manager decides to go in a different direction tactically, there's evidence to suggest that it could be ruthlessly effective.
We can reserve any sort of further judgment until January's out, as Rodgers shouldn't have to give too much thought to whether or not he selects these three again barring fitness or fixture congestion. From now until then, I'm optimistic about what they can produce, and hopefully we get more of the same when Cardiff City visits Anfield on Saturday afternoon.