The fixture list provides a handy way of measuring how much teams have progressed or regressed. Liverpool’s trips to Stoke City have a tendency to be defining games.
The last two are no exception. They are matches that can shape a season. They illustrate the dramatic improvement at Anfield.
On Sunday, Liverpool became the first visiting team to score five goals in a top-flight game at the Britannia Stadium.
They attacked at pace and with potency. They boasted the brilliance of Luis Suarez and yet, with Daniel Sturridge sparkling in his cameo and Raheem Sterling underlining his rich promise, confirmed the days when they could be deemed a one-man team are consigned to the past.
As they eviscerated Stoke, they accelerated past a half-century of league goals for the season. Brendan Rodgers’s side have already struck more times than Kenny Dalglish’s group did in the whole of the 2011/12 campaign.
Yet perhaps the most pertinent comparison with the past is provided by games at the Britannia Stadium. Liverpool lost at Stoke in December 2012 and appeared utterly unprepared for a physical test.
It was an appalling performance, notable for poor selection. A baffled, diminutive technical talent in the land of the long ball, the teenager Suso, lasted 45 minutes.
The second-half substitution when Joe Cole replaced Stewart Downing indicated Liverpool’s propensity to waste money on overrated players.
They limped back to Merseyside 21 points behind the league leaders and a mere 10 points above the relegation zone.
The process of renewal and revival began the following month with the signings of Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho and the promotion of Jordan Henderson to the starting 11.
It may culminate in qualification for the Champions League in May and, if so, the eight-goal thriller at Stoke will rank alongside September’s defeat of Manchester United and December’s demolition of Tottenham among the most important staging posts en route to Europe.
The difference between the last week of 2012 and the first two weeks of 2014 is immense.
One was among the lowest points of the Rodgers reign, another an undoubted highlight. And yet there is a common denominator.
While Liverpool scored once at Stoke 13 months ago and five times on Sunday, they conceded three goals in both games.
Nor, despite the incredible score, is that defensive statistic an outlier. They have yielded three goals each at Everton and Hull City this season, two apiece on their trips to Swansea City, Newcastle United, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea.
Some are elite opposition and it is worth noting Liverpool still have to visit five of the bottom seven sides, but such porousness has become an unfortunate habit.
Whenever they leave Anfield, where they have been excellent, it is a recurring question if Suarez, Sturridge and co can carry on scoring at such a rate to compensate for the goals that inevitably go in at the other end.
It scarcely helps that Simon Mignolet, the goalkeeper, a paragon of solidity in the first four months, has been culpable for concessions in each of the past three away games.
Yet, the fundamental problem occurs in front of him. Liverpool have the worst defensive record in the top seven and, arguably, the poorest back four.
Partly because of injuries, Rodgers has chopped and changed without suggesting he knows his best combination, especially in the centre.
Daniel Agger has been under-used. Kolo Toure’s spirit is willing even if his legs are sometimes found wanting. Mamadou Sakho’s £16 million (Dh96.7m) price tag may explain why the cumbersome Frenchman features so often. And Martin Skrtel, having made the surprise journey from fourth-choice to the first-picked central defender, really ought to be handed a return ticket.
Revisiting Stoke was a reminder of his problems. Skrtel was dropped in favour of the more dependable Jamie Carragher soon after last season’s defeat at the Britannia Stadium. A year on, Liverpool remain too susceptible to the aerial ball, whether free kicks, corners or crosses in open play.
A supposedly commanding centre-back fails at the basics of communication too often, as his mix-ups with Toure at Hull showed.
The retired Carragher’s leadership is missed, which may account for the deployment of Steven Gerrard as a defensive midfielder.
The captain offers responsibility and authority but he cannot resolve Liverpool’s issues with tall strikers. That is a task for central defenders. In one respect, it renders it surprising that Rodgers, who has been linked with Andriy Yarmolenko and Mohamed Salah, seems to want to sign a winger to supply an already prolific attack.
Yet, he has enough centre-backs – Agger, Sakho, Skrtel, Toure, the injured Sebastian Coates and the three young pretenders, Martin Kelly, Andre Wisdom and Tiago Ilori – and three of them were among his 2013 recruits.
But, as a tale of quantity rather than quality, it is the opposite of Liverpool’s striking situation where it scarcely matters that the alternatives to Suarez and Sturridge lack lustre.
Development can be uneven, of course, and while Liverpool have progressed hugely as an attacking force, the danger is they have regressed defensively.
There is no doubt Rodgers has constructed one of the four most entertaining teams in England.
Yet, the danger is their failings at the back will cost them a top-four finish.
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