Lucas Leiva

Liverpool’s Ministry of Defence is the key to their recent surge

Unbeaten in the Premier League since December 21 2014, Liverpool are now well and truly in the mix for a place in the top three, largely due to the very thing that hampered them last season.

Offensively, Liverpool were dynamite in 2013/14, scoring 101 goals in 38 games, largely thanks to Golden Boot winner Luis Suarez with 31 goals and runner up Daniel Sturridge with 21 of his own.

Defensively, however, they fizzled out. 50 goals were conceded by the Reds, 12 teams conceded more, only two of which (Tottenham and Newcastle) finished in the top half.

A collapse at the back in the iconic 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace when 3-0 up comes to mind as the match that lost Liverpool the title.

This campaign has pretty much been the complete opposite, Liverpool’s strikers have been rather pathetic, while defensively they have improved massively, despite early season stick.

Summer signing Mario Balotelli has just one Premier League goal, as does Fabio Borini, while Rickie Lambert and Sturridge (who has been out injured until recently) have just two each.

Simon Mignolet’s goalkeeping has been brought into question regularly this season, despite this though he does have the joint second highest amount of clean sheets (10) from 24 games. Only Southampton’s Fraser Forster (12) has more.

Simon says "don't let them score": Mignolet can thank his defence for his clean sheet tally.

Simon says “don’t let them score”: Mignolet can thank his defence for his clean sheet tally.

This is largely due to Brendan Rodgers’ new system of defenders with three centre backs – Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren and the most impressive of the trio Emre Can playing in-between the wing-backs of Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno.

Can and Markovic deserve the main plaudits here, due to them both being played in unfavoured positions.

Bayern Munich castaway Can has slotted into the heart of Liverpool’s back line since his £9.75 million arrival from Bayer Leverkusen in July, and does not look out of place despite his astute frame and young age of 21.

Markovic, meanwhile has adjusted to playing in a deeper role than what he was used to at Benfica and Partizan Belgrade.

Moreno too on the other flank is the closest thing Liverpool have come to replacing the marauding full-back that was club legend John Arne Riise, probably best underlined by the gif of each player’s first goal for the club.

http://gfycat.com/HiddenCloseGibbon

Not forgetting Anfield cult hero Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian has been subject to both boo boys and fan boys during his time in Merseyside, but everyone loves him now – and rightly so.

Seven of the 10 clean sheets Liverpool have amassed this season have came when Lucas was in the side with the 28-year-old also boasting a passing accuracy of 86%, and has also made 57 tackles in 14 games.

Although the other end of the pitch has been a problem for Rodgers’ side, Philippe Coutinho is now more pivotal to his side and Sterling has blossomed in a false nine role up top, leading the club’s scoring charts with six goals.

Sturridge’s return to injury, and hopefully form, may now make this Liverpool squad the most complete in recent history as they march on to the coveted Champions League places.

Crystal Palace 3-1 Liverpool (Gayle ’17, Ledley ’78, Jedinak ’81, Lambert ‘2)

Liverpool’s Selhurst Park curse continued as Crystal Palace cruised to a win to climb out of the bottom three while the Reds are now winless in four.

Late strikes from Joe Ledley and an astonishing Mile Jedinak free-kick sealed the three points for Palace despite Liverpool taking the lead after just two minutes.

Rickie Lambert scored his first goal in Liverpool colours to give his boyhood club a dream start before Palace pegged them back.

It was a goal made in Southampton with Lambert latching onto Adam Lallana’s through ball before tucking the ball past Julian Speroni.

Dwight Gayle took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails soon after though, equalising 15 minutes later when he turned in the rebound from Yannick Bolasie’s fierce strike off the post for his fourth goal in his last three games against Brendan Rodgers’ side.

Palace had to wait a little longer for their second but it was well worth it, Bolasie, who terrorised Liverpool all game, flicked the ball over Dejan Lovren and then squared it to Ledley who was never going to miss from point blank range.

Jedinak completed the scoring when he curled in a corker of a free-kick nine minutes before the end.

Crystal Palace: Speroni, Kelly, Delaney (Hangeland ’36), Dann, Ward, Jedinak, Ledley, Bolasie, Puncheon (McArthur ’76), Gayle, Chamakh

Subs not used: Hennessey, Bannan, Zaha, Campbell, Johnson

Bookings: Hangeland ’84

Red Cards: None

Liverpool: Mignolet, Manquillo, Skrtel, Lovren, Johnson, Gerrard, Allen (Can ’74), Coutinho, Lallana (Borini ’72), Sterling, Lambert

Subs not used: Jones, Toure, Moreno, Lucas, Markovic

Bookings: Skrtel ’53, Manquillo ’61

Red Cards: None

Man of the Match: Yannick Bolasie

Liverpool 0-1 Aston Villa

Aston Villa grinded out an unexpected 0-1 win over Liverpool thanks to an early goal by Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Agbonlahor, who this week signed a four-year contract extension at Villa Park, put his boyhood club 0-1 up after just nine minutes when he bundled in a corner thanks to some poor Liverpool defending.

Said defence was under pressure again soon after but this time Phillipe Senderos headed over from Ashley Westwood’s free-kick.

Liverpool throughout tried and failed to break down a resolute and organised Villa side.

Mario Balotelli, who many quoted as a “bargain” at £16 million was ineffective against Senderos and Nathan Baker on his home debut in a Liverpool shirt and was replaced by Rickie Lambert with 20 minutes to go.

The controversial Italian had just one chance of note, a deflected effort in first half injury time that went wide.

Balotelli also had headed chances at corners but did not gain sufficient contact on either of them.

Liverpool’s closest effort came nine minutes before the end when Phillipe Coutinho hit the post from the outside of the area. From the rebound Raheem Sterling’s shot was blocked by his own player Jordan Henderson which summed up their day.

Brendan Rodgers’ side again showed that while plan A of patient but potent passing play can be deadly as well as easy on the eye, the side lacks a different option when teams set up to defend and hit them through a counter attack or, like this case,  a set piece.

Aston Villa however were impressive in the way they set themselves up and continued their recent good form at Anfield, they have not lost there in their last four outings now.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Manquillo, Lovren, Sakho, Moreno, Henderson, Gerrard, Coutinho, Lallana (Sterling ’61), Markovic (Borini ’71), Balotelli (Lambert ’71)

Subs not used: Jones, Enrique, Lucas, Toure,

Aston Villa: Guzan, Hutton, Baker, Senderos, Cissokho, Westwood, Delph, Cleverley (Sanchez ’86), Richardson, Agbonlahor (Bent ’90), Weimann (N’Zogbia ’72)

Subs not used: Given, Okore, Bacuna, Grealish

Liverpool 2-1 Southampton

Goals from Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge secured a 2-1 win over a spirited Southampton side.

Sturridge squeaked home the winner ten minutes before the end, getting on the end of a Sterling header and finishing from close range with the deftest of touches.

Sterling gave Liverpool the lead when he seized on Jordan Henderson’s intelligent defense splitting pass from the halfway line and slotted the opening goal of the game into the corner first time past Fraser Forster 23 minutes into the match.

Liverpool’s 19-year-old winger could have had a second in first half stoppage time but this time Forster was equal to his shot from the edge of the box.

Nathaniel Clyne equalized for the visitors 11 minutes into the second half when he smashed home from close in following a neat one-two with debutant Dusan Tadic.

Southampton could have completed a shock turnaround seven minutes later when James Ward-Prowse teed up Steve Davis but he failed to to generate enough power on his shot and it was easier for Simon Mignolet to deal with than it should have been.

Want-away midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin came closest for the Saints in the first half, his dipping curled shot needed to be tipped over the bar by Mignolet just before the break.

Sterling Start: England International Sterling puts the hosts in front.

Sterling Start: England International Sterling puts the hosts in front.

Ronald Koeman’s outfit almost snatched a victory in the dying minutes, first Schneiderlin thundered a shot off the underside of the bar and somehow £12 million man Shane Long headed the rebound wide.

It was Liverpool who held onto the win though and start this season just how they ended the last one.

Liverpool: Mignolet, Manquillo, Johnson, Skrtel, Lovren, Gerrard, Lucas (Allen ’63), Henderson, Coutinho (Lambert ’76), Sterling, Sturridge

Subs not used: Jones, Toure, Sakho, Ibe, Can

Southampton: Forster, Clyne, Fonte, Yoshida, Bertrand, Wanyama, Schneiderlin, S. Davis (Isgrove ’82), Ward-Prowse, Tadić (Long ’74), Pelle

Subs not used: K. Davis, Taïder, Cork, Hooiveld, Stephens

Man of the match: Raheem Sterling