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Liverpool’s Big Step Four-ward

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18, 30, 37, 9, 21, 11. No, these aren’t the winning numbers for tonight’s National Lottery — they’re actually the gap between Liverpool and the winner of the league dating back to the 2002-03 campaign. It’s sobering to realise that whilst Liverpool are a world class club, they’ve never been closer than nine points in the last six seasons.

Like most clubs, Liverpool came into the league this season with high hopes and a blank slate. Like most Liverpool would start hot out of the gates before dropping points around the end of October and falling out of the race completely by the first of the year. Like a fine-tuned watch, Liverpool seemed to collapse right on schedule every year.

So when the club came into January at the top of the table, people started to take notice. With almost the same squad, journalists and fans alike began to give their own antidotes as to why Liverpool had been so successful. Some claimed it was due to the increased partnership between Torres and Gerrard, whilst others said it was due to Rafa tinkering less with the starting XI. Whatever the case, there was something different about this Liverpool squad.

Whilst they may have dropped points during a critical stretch in January, Liverpool still have the chance this weekend to finish the 2008-09 campaign only one point behind Manchester United when it’s all said and done. And given the gap between Liverpool and the league champion in recent years, that’s something to be proud of.

But it still begs the question? What changed this season (besides not dropping as many points away from Anfield) that turned Rafa’s squad from a pretender to a contender? You needn’t look any farther than the number zero to figure that one out.

That zero is of course the number of times Liverpool faced defeat against Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal this season. If you go back to the 2005-06 season Liverpool have never taken more than 6 points off Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in a given season. Compare that to 14 points taken off three of the best clubs in the world this campaign and it’s obvious to see that Liverpool’s success lies in their new found confidence against the teams that provide the biggest hurdle each season.

Gone are the matches where Liverpool walked on the pitch looking for a point against Manchester United. This season the club managed to take all six off the Premier League champions after falling to defeat in five of their past six. Yes, there’s a different mentality going on at Liverpool.

By putting Gerrard behind Torres and allowing him to play a more attacking role in a formation that didn’t force him to be so narrow, the squad went from being the hunted to now being the hunter.

Rafa put the pressure on teams like United and Chelsea early on and forced them to keep up. The old days of laying back and putting six or seven behind the ball were gone. What was once Liverpool’s Achilles heel has now become their greatest ally.

The points on the road against mid-table clubs still appear to be a hurdle that Liverpool needs to clear in the coming year but if there was ever one roadblock that seemed to be in their way, it was having success against big four clubs. Rafa has rectified the situation by instilling a killer instinct in his club that hasn’t been seen since the Spaniard took over at Anfield.

Liverpool may still be searching for that one piece of the puzzle to bring them No19 but if they play with the same killer instinct next season against Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, most would probably agree that it wouldn’t matter who they brought so long as they could replicate their big step “four”-ward this season.

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