By Liverpool correspondent Cam Downes
Jordan Henderson is the most in-form midfielder in the Premier League but Liverpool need more goals to overhaul Arsenal and Manchester United in top-four chase
Liverpool’s defence has become the meanest in England
When the three S’s were running riot last season, Liverpool appeared to pay no attention to the virtue of keeping a clean sheet. Forget about keeping the back door shut, it was all about bursting through the front door with a sackful of dynamite.
The Merseysiders do not have the explosiveness of 2013-14, but they now have something almost as valuable as a Luis Suarez-led front line: a reliable rearguard.
Ever since Brendan Rodgers took the brave step of overhauling his system in December and installing a three-man defence, Liverpool’s back line has been the meanest in the Premier League. Their clean sheet against Swansea was a record-equalling sixth in succession in the league.
Credit must go to Simon Mignolet, who maintained his fine run of form with some important first-half saves when Liverpool were under the cosh.
In front of him, Martin Skrtel was the epitome of raw-boned resilience, Emre Can, a few rash fouls apart, provided class and composure while Mahmadou Sakho demonstrated again why he is the best man to fill the third defensive role with some important interceptions.
With Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen pressing feverishly in central midfield, Rodgers has found a system and personnel he can trust.
Teams playing Liverpool must be wondering how they can break down this impressive backline.
Henderson has emerged as one of the Premier League’s finest midfielders
Pick a central midfield duo for your Premier League team of the season? Chelsea pair Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas deserve immediate consideration. As does Southampton catalyst Morgan Schneiderlin. Maybe a shout out for James McCarthy or Nabil Bentaleb. What of the Premier League midfield grandees. Yaya Toure? Steven Gerrard? Michael Carrick? Not this season.
The most obvious partner for one of Matic or Fabregas in the team of the year is Jordan Henderson, who has emerged over the course of this campaign as one of the league’s most complete midfielders.
Long admired for his athleticism, energy and commitment, the England international has added goals, inventiveness and greater technical quality to his game in 2014-15.
Henderson’s third goal in three Premier League matches owed something to luck but fortune tends to favour the brave and the 24-year-old has taken real responsibility for leading Liverpool’s charge for a top-four finish in the second half of the season.
As his stock rises, so do his credentials to be the next permanent Liverpool skipper and the captain’s armband is beginning to look a neat fit on his left bicep.
Even with Steven Gerrard on the pitch for the final third of the match in his comeback from injury, it was noticeable that it was Henderson who stepped up to take a late free-kick as his older colleague ambled into the box to jostle for receivership of the right-flank delivery. That would not have happened a few months ago. The baton is being passed on.
Merseysiders need more goals to overhaul Arsenal and Manchester United
Liverpool’s post-Christmas turnaround has been outstanding but the feeling persists that if they fall short in their top-four quest this season it will be because of a lack of goals.
The Merseysiders’ 29 league matches have yielded 43 goals, leaving them some way behind rivals Chelsea (58), Manchester City (59), Arsenal (56) and Manchester United (50), as well as Tottenham (46).
The fluency has returned to Liverpool’s game over recent months, most notably in the exhilarating home victories over City and Spurs but they are not annihilating opponents in the manner they were 12 months ago.
This is partly down to a less gung-ho approach and partly because the senior strikers have been off the boil for so long.
Daniel Sturridge is the premier spearhead at Anfield but his output has been mixed since recovering from the thigh injury that sidelined him for four months and he delivered another up and down display against Swansea.
The clever feints and smart close control was in evidence, most notably when he hit the post in the final minutes with a right-foot effort as he attempted to finish off a breathtaking Coutinho-led counter-attack.
But so was the rustiness that still permeates the Englishman’s efforts. Much of what he attempted didn’t quite come off. He still looks a yard off the pace.
It would be no surprise if Rodgers drops Sturridge to the bench for Sunday’s blockbuster against United and selects Raheem Sterling to lead the attack, as he did so successfully against City and Spurs.