Have Liverpool proved that they’re a team for all conditions?

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Brendan RodgersAfter their 5-1 thumping at Liverpool on Saturday, Arsenal’s manager, Arsene Wenger, admitted that the result ‘raises questions’ about his side’s ability to sustain their push for a first Premier League title since 2004.

While the Gunners are left to reflect on their own lamentable display, the Red’s comprehensive dismantling of yet another visitor to their Anfield home answers a pointed question, or perhaps accusation, that has been directed at Brendan Rodgers’ team.

Second only to Manchester City in terms of league goals scored this season, the Merseyside club have, on their own turf, put to the sword lowlier opponents such as West Bromwich Albion, Fulham, Norwich City and West Ham United.  When Stoke City scored three times against a haphazard Liverpool defence at the Britannia Stadium, the away team responded by striking five times to take the points.

For all their ruthless domination of lesser lights, however, there remained a suspicion that Rodgers’ men were little more than ‘flat-track bullies’; capable of seeing off inferior adversaries in swaggering style, but prone to disappearing into their shell when matched against a more formidable foe.

Even a five goal victory at Tottenham Hotspur came with a caveat attached.  The Londoners’, then with Andre Villa-Boas still at the helm, were in a state of absolute disarray; a condition that led to Villas-Boas’ removal from his job one day on from that humbling.

The opinion of Liverpool’s naysayers was given extra weight shortly after that 5-0 win at White Hart Lane.  After another ‘gimme’ home win against Cardiff City, a club then set on self-destructing through owner Vincent Tan’s unpalatable treatment of manager Malky Mackay, the Reds were defeated at both Manchester City and Chelsea.

Those two fixtures provided the 18 time English champions’ first real tests since a patchy November – a month that best illustrated the case against Liverpool being a genuine player at the Premier League’s top end.  Then, the facile 4-0 beating of Fulham was sandwiched between a two goal reverse at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, – a match in which the away team were distinctly second best all over the pitch– and a thrilling Merseyside derby in which the Reds were slightly fortunate to come away with a 3-3 draw.

Despite the Merseysiders’ positive performances in those tussles at City and Chelsea, there was little contesting the fact that, on each occasion, the home sides merited their narrow victories – notwithstanding that a more clinical edge in front of goal could have seen Liverpool take a point from Manuel Pellegrini’s free scoring outfit.

If the latter experiences of Everton and Arsenal are a barometer for what they can expect, those two high-flying teams that inflicted Christmas time defeats on Rodgers’ men will encounter perhaps their toughest test of the campaign when they travel to Anfield.

Five days prior to the Gunners’ chastening early afternoon in the north-west, Chelsea’s masterclass of a triumph in Manchester City’s Etihad backyard was being lauded as the Premier League’s finest performance of this season to date.  The right to that title has, during a remarkable six months, amassed a number of competitors.  By demolishing Arsenal, to the extent that within twenty minutes of kick-off they were 4-0 up, Liverpool staked a claim to the year’s best display every bit as valid as anything produced by City or, indeed, Arsenal themselves.

Wenger and his team can’t say they weren’t warned.  Less than a fortnight before Arsenal’s Anfield misery, a progressive Everton unit were similarly overwhelmed by the Reds’ scintillating counter-attacking football.  While acknowledging that their fierce city rivals came into the contest shorn of key individuals, and with others short of fitness, the game was a non-contest.

The team’s inherent vision, imagination, and pace, set beside Daniel Sturridge’s cold-blooded finishing, savagely punished Everton’s unusually flat-footed defending – and sent Liverpool into half-time out of sight.  When Phil Jagielka, minutes after the re-start, presented possession to Luis Suarez on half-way there was only ever going to be one outcome as the Uruguayan commenced his slaloming run towards Tim Howard’s goal.  Suarez’s accomplished strike put the seal on a mesmerising 4-0 victory.

Having Suarez, undoubtedly one of the world’s pre-eminent attackers, in their ranks, has long been deemed the standout weapon in Liverpool’s armoury.  In scoring nine times, while conceding just a Mikel Arteta penalty, across 180 minutes of football against two top six opponents, this Reds’ team has proved it has much more going for it than merely their star striker.

Crucial to Rodgers’ evolution of his charges has been the deployment of Steven Gerrard in a deep-lying berth.  The England captain has excelled in that role for his national side and, a poor outing three weeks ago against Aston Villa apart, is the fulcrum around which his club team function.

Against Everton, the 33 year-old was routinely uncannily positioned to apply a telling block or, with the Blues on the offensive and looking dangerous, put a foot in to nick possession.   Gerrard’s work, alongside the graft of Jordan Henderson, provided a springboard for his side to raid forward.  So effective were Liverpool on the break break that, whenever the Toffees were prodding and probing in the final third, Roberto Martinez’s men appeared as vulnerable to shipping another goal as they did to breaching the Reds’ rearguard.

It is in that backline where doubts remain about Rodgers’ rapidly developing team.  Indeed, it is possibly only the current defensive partnership of Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure, as well as a lack of thrusting full-backs of the type demanded by the modern game, that bars Liverpool from being considered serious challengers to Chelsea, City and Arsenal for this season’s title.

It was astonishing, on Saturday, to witness Wenger’s team, with Everton’s Anfield mauling fresh in the memory, leaving inviting expanses of green for Sturridge and a rampant Raheem Sterling to gallop into; negligence the attacking pair punished with some aplomb.  Surely, managers due to encounter Liverpool will heed the lessons unwittingly provided by two of the country’s more expansive outfits.  Any side taking on this high-octane, uber-confident unit in a fashion that leaves its defence exposed to the menacing raids of a merciless front three, all chasing onto the precise supply of Philippe Coutinho, Gerrard and Henderson, is offering itself up for a drubbing.

West Brom last week, with a helping hand from Toure, showed what can be achieved by hounding Rodgers’ team for 90 minutes; a feat managed to winning effect by Hull City back at the beginning of December.  The Tigers were on that day, though, aided in their cause by some dreadful Liverpool defending.  More recently, after Villa were handed the freedom of Anfield to open up a two goal lead, the Reds were able to regroup and fight back by imposing their attacking prowess on the inconsistent Midlanders.

That 2-2 draw is a game that, in microcosm, epitomises Liverpool’s season.  The team was asked questions; about its resilience, its capacity to dig itself out of trouble, and whether goals and opportunities could be mustered when they were most needed.  All answers came in the affirmative.

With a trip to Fulham next on the agenda, this is no time for Liverpool to take their foot off the brakes.   At the very least, a treasured Champions League spot is up for grabs.  With involvement in Europe’s premier club competition, Anfield will once more become an attractive location for the continent’s leading talent.  The prospect of Mohamed Salah or Willian slipping from Rodgers’ grasp and into the hands of Chelsea, or of any of the manager’s current chief protagonists agitating to get away, will be markedly reduced.  The boss himself would be afforded additional leeway as he seeks to drum organisation and consistency into that susceptible back-four.

The pattern of improvement elsewhere in his side this term, suggests that Rodgers will eventually hit on a defensive unit to match the rhythm of his attacking cavalry.  He and his players are steadily emerging as a Premier League force; a force that doesn’t need the wind at their backs to beat the best.

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