At the start of the season, even the most ardent of Liverpool fans would have been hard pressed to believe they would have been on top on Christmas day. Of course since then, two consecutive defeats have seen them plummet to fifth place; however, they remain only five points off top spot and one point off fourth. After several years away from contending for the top four positions, Champions League football is suddenly a genuine prospect - something many pundits thought at best was outside bet for Liverpool this season.
How has it happened?
Liverpool fans have Brendan Rodgers and Fenway Sports Group (owners of Liverpool) to thank for rubbishing pre-season expectations. They fought tough and nail to the keep Luis Suarez from falling into the clutches of firstly Real Madrid and latterly Arsenal. At the time many questioned the wisdom of keeping a player who, despite his best efforts, could only lead them to seventh last season and eighth the season before. Even more questioned the wisdom of keeping a player who was clearly desperate to leave (as adjudged by Suarez consistently changing his reasoning for wanting away), especially given his volatile nature.
However, Rodgers and Fenway Sports Group stuck to their guns and have been rewarded with Messi and Ronaldo-esque performances that has unanimously forced Premier League fans to declare Luis Suarez the best in the league.
Aside from Suarez, Liverpool's revival is also down to the transfer committee Liverpool have in place to regulate their transfer activities. In January, Coutinho and Sturridge were a flavour of the recent success Liverpool have enjoyed in the transfer market.
This season Coutinho's form has been up and down, yet despite his inconsistency, he has shown on more than on occasion the enormous potential he has - his dribbling and key pass rate is up with the best in the league.
On the other hand, before his injury, Sturridge had continued where he left off last season. Despite not playing since Novemeber, Sturridge's nine goals in twelve matches makes him the fourth highest scoring player in the league. In fact, before Suarez's return from suspension, Liverpool heavily relied on Sturridge to grab the goals. When Suarez did return, they struck a partnership reminiscent of Cole and Yorke's - you never knew who had the job of scoring and who had the job of assisting.
Further successes in the summer transfer window include: Simon Mingolet, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho. The trio have all enjoyed fine starts, especially Mignolet who has pulled off several saves to keep Liverpool in contention in matches.
Though perhaps where Rodgers's has really excelled is in his coaching skills. Players like Jon Flanagan, Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling have stepped up their game. Those who watched Sterling's performances last season will not be surprised by his progression this season. Last year he scored two goals in twenty-four, this season he has three in fourteen. What has stuck out most this season is his eagerness to cut inside, the timing of his runs and his desire to take shots on goal. He still needs to work on his end product to be compared to the likes of Eden Hazard or Jesus Navas, but compared to other seasoned pros like Aaron Lennon, Sterling is already beyond their level - something made painfully obvious in this seasons encounter:
Nonetheless, despite surpassing all expectations, many Liverpool fans will be disappointed to find their team in 'only fifth place'. Aside from defeats to Southampton, Arsenal and Hull where Liverpool were clearly outplayed, draws to Swansea, Newcastle and Everton could have easily been victories. Likewise, the recent loss to Man City could have easily resulted in a victory and on another day Liverpool may have scrapped a draw against Chelsea.
The fact Chelsea and Manchester City were able to get fortuitous results and Liverpool were not is the reason why I and many others predict Chelsea and Manchester City will fight for top spot at the end of the season, and Liverpool will be scrapping for fourth at the end.
Yes, poor decisions from officials cost Liverpool dearly in both matches (and against Everton), but to dwell on this escapes the fact Chelsea, Manchester City and even Everton were able get what they scarcely deserved by capitalising when they were in the ascendancy.
What do these matches have in common? Liverpool had some sort of injury or suspension keeping a key player out. Indeed, at some stage of the season Coutinho, Gerrard, Suarez and Sturridge have been out for sustained periods and due to the lack of depth Liverpool have in their squad, it hurts them far more than any of their rivals.
I mentioned earlier Rodgers has performed well in the previous two transfer windows, that is true, but he has signed his fair share of duds that in hindsight are quite baffling. Was Iago Aspas was signed as back up to Suarez and Sturridge? Was he Suarez's replacement brought in to cover his proposed departure in the summer? Or was he brought to play as an attacking midfielder behind Suarez and Sturridge or on the wing? So far he has performed each of the aforementioned positions and he has performed them negligibly. The rumours circulating he may be off to Swansea just adds further confusion to why he was brought.
Slightly less baffling buys were the duo of Tiago Ilori and Luis Alberto. They have yet to start a game for Liverpool and in the case of Ilori, yet to get an Premier League minutes off the bench. At the beginning of the season it would have been understandable if Liverpool wanted to rebuild the team completely with young blood after the last few years of failure, however their form this season has rendered such conclusions baffling. If they were to miss out on a Champions League place, the £21 million pounds they spent on the trio will haunt them.
Other transfer failures were loanees Aly Cissokho and Victor Moses who have both failed to integrate into the team. Cissokoho was brought to provide competition for the talented, yet injury prone and often inconsistent Jose Enrique. Moses was brought to add a little oomph to Liverpool on the counter attack, as well providing a player who can play a variety of attacking roles without missing a step. Nonetheless, neither player was a first choice option - Moses being fourth choice after bids for Mhkitharyan, Wiilan and Diego Costa failed. Unfortunately for Liverpool, not only were they both not first choice options, they have both lived up to their reputations as players unlikely to fulfill their potential.
The failure of the aforementioned, as well as the rawness of some the players brought means Liverpool are still fielding players that are holding them back from the level they aspire to reach. Therefore, as we are mere hours away from the January transfer window opening, it becomes apparent Liverpool do need to buy players, and they need them ready made for the first 11.
In order of how badly Liverpool need to replace them, the Liverpool players under threat are:
At the beginning of the season, Liverpool were always outran in the middle and owed their victories to the form of Sturridge. The cause of Liverpool's weakness in the middle was the lack of energy Gerrard and Lucas had; together they were often second best to winning tackles and left the entire team chasing shadows. Originally I gave Lucas the benefit of the doubt and pinned the fault on age catching up with Gerrard.
However, when Joe Allen replaced Lucas to partner Gerrard against Norwich and West Ham, Liverpool were a lot more balanced and exerted a control on the games.
Since Gerrard's injury, Lucas has been drafted into the team and aside from the 5-0 victory against Tottenham, matches against Cardiff, Man City and Chelsea have seen Liverpool revert back to the side with a likeness to a metaphorical see-saw.
Against Manchester City he only registered two tackles, and he missed one of them. Against Chelsea he attempted eight, but was only successful in half of those (screenshot two). One of those missed tackles enabled Eden Hazard to creep closer to goal and receive the ball back to score the equaliser. Even against Tottenham, Lucas missed all four of his attempted tackles (screenshot three).
Across the season, he has only made 48 tackles out of 108, has committed 32 fouls and has been dribbled on 25 different occasions. - atrocious numbers from a so called defensive midfielder.
It is clear as day Lucas's inability to tackle is hindering Liverpool. Simply put, a defensive midfielder unable to tackles is like a goalkeeper unable to catch a ball.
Joe Allen makes the list as he is the reason the photo towards the left even exists - how he contrived to miss that chance I will never know.
Unfortunately for him that is all fans remember him by, not to say he has had a bad season - in fact he has quietly had a decent season ensuring the Liverpool midfield does not get overrun - but the fact the miss defines his season so far suggests he does nothing tangible to affect matches.
He does not score, he does not threaten to score, he does not assist and he does not threaten to assist either. With Allen what you get is a player who is energetic, puts in tackles and can pass tidily. He would be at home at a mid-tier club, or as a fifth choice midfielder for big team, playing in matches they are almost certain to win. But for Allen to be first in line in case of an emergency to a first team player is a damning indictment to the lack depth Liverpool have. To put it into perspective, Allen should be to Liverpool what Anderson means to Man Utd, or what Jack Rodwell means to Man City - both decent players, both far, far away from the first team.
Liverpool have a serious problem in the defensive midfield position and when Yann M'Vila was spotted at Goodinson Park to watch Liverpool and good friend Sakho play Everton, rumours went into overdrive.
As you can see from his stats below, he is far more successful in his tackling than Lucas is and gives away less fouls too. Additionally, he is more sound in his position - as adjudged by him only being dribbled 11 times in 17 league matches - a figure becoming of a good defensive midfielder.
Furthermore, unlike Lucas and Allen, M'Vila is capable of orchestrating from deep. He averages 8.8 long balls per game, albeit with a slightly alarming accuracy of 86.3%. If Liverpool are able to have both Gerrard and M'Vila spreading the play from deep, with Suarez and Sturridge up front and Henderson, Coutinho and Sterling supporting, defenders will not know where to turn - they struggle now already!
Of course, M'Vila's and Gerrard's accuracy is not the best, however, if M'vila were to improve them defensively, then counters would not be too much of problem. The real problem stems from the reliability of the stats. The Russian League is not a patch on the English Premier League and as such M'Vila's stats may be inflated.
For this reason Blaise Matuidi from PSG is the better option. PSG are miles away from where Liverpool are right now, but Matuidi is in his final year of contract. It is more than likely Matuidi will choose to go to a team that has established themselves in the Champions League for several years, rather than making a risky move to Liverpool, however, if you don not try, you do not win and Matuidi's quality is there for all to see.
Screenshot two shows, Matuidi wins an even greater percentage of tackles than M'Vila despite the former attempting more tackles than the latter. Additionally, Matuidi is a fantastic dribbler, successfully taking on 17 of his attempted 25 dribbles; he also has an very high passing accuracy and is a threat when shooting, scoring twice already. As a cherry on the top, his adventurous nature does not make him more susceptible to being dribbled, only on 11 occasions have players drifted by him. It is because of his all round game Matuidi is arguably the best defensive midfielder in the game today and Liverpool would do well to get him cheaply before his contract runs out and they get priced out on wages.
Matuidi is the better player and it is arguable with him Liverpool do not need an extra midfielder to further relegate Joe Allen from the pecking order. With Matuidi, they could line up in a 4-4-2 similar to Manchester City, with Henderson or Gerrard as his partner and be safe in the knowledge they have enough defensive cover to not concede too many goals, still have the quality to retain the ball like the midfield trio of Lucas, Allen and Henderson can and simply overpower teams with their attacking might - second only to Man City's.
However, Matuidi is unlikely to pick Liverpool if one of Europe's best teams come in for him, especially now Liverpool have dropped to fifth in the table. Although I firmly believe M'Vila to be a in different league to Lucas, there are doubts over his quality and as such they will need another midfielder to cover Allen's deficiencies and line up with a midfield trio.
Cabaye is a goal-scoring midfielder and has five goals this season. Last season he had six and in the 2009/10 season hit thirteen with Lille. In addition to his goals, he is also a hard worker as denoted by his 70 tackles this year and is very creative too.
Critics will point to the fact he has only been successful in 28 of his 70 tackles and his passing accuracy is only 83%. However, Newcastle's playing style and general lack of quality - as evidenced against Arsenal - is to blame for this. In a team that exerts more control on matches, Cabaye's work rate will result in the percentage of successful tackles rising and more passes will connect.
Likewise with Cabaye, Rakitic is a goal-scoring midfielder. Last season he scored eight goals for Sevilla, this season he has seven and in the 2009/10 season, he hit seven for Schalke.
Perhaps what makes him superior to Cabaye is the fact he tackles far more efficiently than Cabaye (27 successful tackles out of 42) and is generally more accurate in the final third (six assists compared to Cabaye's two). This is all the more impressive given the players both play for teams that play on the counter.
Rakitic is the superior player and as he is younger by two years he represents greater value for money. Conversely, Liverpool have a nice team spirit going and signing too many players from foreign league could disrupt the momentum they have generated. Cabaye has proved himself to be on the same tier as Arteta, Ramsey, Ramires and others of that silk for a few seasons and Liverpool should make him a priority.
What will count against them in pursuits for the player is money. In the summer, Newcastle refused to sell Cabaye and given the form Newcastle are in, it will take something extortionate to prize him away. Liverpool must avoid another Andy Carroll situation at all costs, especially considering they have so many holes to plug in the team.
In regards to Rakitic, Sevilla are reportedly not budging from their £33 million release clause that binds Rakitic to the club. However, given Sevilla are under heavy debts, they may be tempted with a figure around £20 million - that was enough to see Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo join Man City - though whether or not Liverpool have the money to buy for that price and buy other targets is questionable.
Overall this position would be a luxury signing best saved for summer.
Given my earlier praise of Sterling, it may seem weird to have him as someone whose place is under threat. As good as he is has been, the matter of fact is he still has a long way to go before he reaches the upper echelons of football.
He could have had several goals against West Ham and Cardiff - luckily his wastefulness did not hinder the team. However, his miss from five yards against Man City costed his team a draw and shrouded an otherwise perfect game from him.
Should Liverpool be able to buy the winger they so crave, Sterling will not suffer the same indignation others like Lucas and Allen are likely to harbour should their upgrades arrive - unlike those two, Sterling would very much be in rotation.
The question is: who do Liverpool buy who as an upgrade on Sterling? Mkhitarayn, Willian and Diego Costa fit that bill nicely, however, they all chose different destinations in the summer.
In the run-up January transfer window they have been heavily linked with Mohamed Salah and Cristian Tello. They are both fine players with the potential to become great players, but are they that much of an upgrade on Sterling? Granted Tello scored seven goals in only 22 appearances (12 starts, 10 subs) in La Liga last season; Salah has 17 in 26 for Egypt and they both have Champions League experience, but they are not world class by any stretch of the imagination.
Tello has yet to experience a full season as a first team member and Salah's form in Europe - this season and last - overshadows his domestic form. To buy them would present a risk; admittedly it was a risk that paid off last January with Coutinho and Sturridge, though Liverpool were desperate then, now the stakes are higher. The league is so close this year and you get the feeling the gap will start to widen from next year onwards. Liverpool need to ensure they are in the pack breaking away, not the pack left behind.
Arda Turan would have been perfect - he is experienced enough, in the peak of his powers and is a genuine world class talent. Nevertheless, if Diego Costa rejected Liverpool for Atletico Madrid, now Atletico are now fully confirmed as the equals of Barcelona and Real Madrid, Turan would be absolutely mad to leave them when they could win La Liga and are dark-horses for Champions League glory.
My tip would be for Liverpool to attempt a bid for Hoffenheim's Roberto Firmino. Albeit in the same age bracket as Salah and Tello, the 22 year old has been a first team regular in the Bundesliga for three seasons now. In each of those seasons he was an integral part of his team - in 2011/12 he scored seven in 30, last season 5 in 33 and he now has eight goals in 16 games and has six assists to boot as well.
Although strictly not a winger, neither are Samir Nasri, David Silva as well as possible future team mate Coutinho. Nonetheless, Firmino has all the qualities to enjoy success on the right wing. He makes intelligent runs, combines well with others around him, he is fast and his dribbling skills are among the very best in Europe.
He has currently attempted 99 dribbles and has pulled off 63 - only Eden Hazard has more dribbles in the Premier League and he has played more games. Furthermore, despite his advanced position, Firmino is also a brilliant tackler, registering 33 from 53. If Liverpool were to sign him they would gain a player with the ready made capabilities to take them to the next level.
The final player whose position is under threat is Cissokho. Since his breakout year at Porto secured him a £15 million move to Lyon, his career his lead from one disappointment to another. Reports have linked Liverpool to Barcelona right back Montoya. If that were to happen, given Montoya's verstaility as well as that of Flanagan's and Johnson's who can both cover left back, there would no space for Cissokho.
In the long term, it could also spell the end for Glen Johnson. Aside from the bad buys made this season, Johnson has comfortably been the worst player for Liverpool this season. He has 18 months left on his contract and may be sold in the summer.
*Statistics courtesy of Squawka and Whoscored.