• Premier League

The most unlikely Premier League champions?

Richard Jolly
March 20, 2014
Steven Gerrard has been instrumental for Liverpool this season © PA Photos

For some, mentions of 1984 conjure thoughts of an Orwellian nightmare. For others, it provides memories of Liverpudlian bliss. In an otherwise bleak time for Merseyside, its teams performed a clean sweep, winning three of English football's major domestic trophies. Liverpool recorded the greatest treble in their history, winning the European Cup, the League Cup and the league title.

And yet those whose allegiances lie at Anfield may note another sight in the First Division table: FA Cup winners Everton finished seventh. Twelve months later, Howard Kendall's side became champions. It was a rise no one has rivalled since. It is suddenly pertinent. Liverpool limped in seventh last season and, as Brendan Rodgers said after December's 5-0 thrashing of Tottenham: "No team has gone from seventh one season to winning the league the next: it's unprecedented."

It is in the Premier League era, anyway, when social mobility has been so limited that no team placed lower than third has gone on to top the final standings the following year.

Now Liverpool threaten to smash through the glass ceiling and redefine what is possible. They sit in second, procurers of 29 points and scorers of 38 goals in their past 11 games. They still have home matches against Chelsea and Manchester City to come.

They may be the exception to the rule. Indeed, they are the exceptions to most rules, including the club's own. This is a title challenge unlike virtually any other, including the 18 successful tilts mounted at Anfield.

Consider the class of 1984. Ian Rush famously scored 47 goals in all competitions yet Joe Fagan's side only struck 73 times in their 42 league matches. Rodgers' team, with 82 in 30, have already topped that tally and are averaging almost an extra goal per game. The corollary is that, leaking many more goals than leaders Chelsea, they are also conceding at a far greater rate. It is hard to imagine any of the modern-day back four earning a spot in the team of the season.

Delve into Liverpool's past and they tended to build from the back, playing with the authority that sides confident of keeping clean sheets possessed. Fourteen of their most recent 16 title-winning teams had the division's best defensive record - the 1978-79 side was breached just 16 times - whereas the current side's is comparable with Crystal Palace's, not Chelsea's.

Luis Suarez was linked with a move away from Liverpool last summer © Getty Images

If Rodgers' fondness for passing football made him seem an appointment in keeping with the club's traditions, the theme of many of their greatest teams was control. In contrast, the current collective has brought glorious anarchy at times, with the 3-3 draw at Everton, the 5-3 win at Stoke, the 4-3 triumph over Swansea and Saturday's 6-3 in against Cardiff springing readlily to mind. These results have also demonstrated a greater propensity to run riot and, it's worth noting, Liverpool have scored at least three goals in 17 of the 25 league games Luis Suarez has started.

The great Liverpool teams all had a pattern of play, the much-discussed Liverpool Way, and rarely veered from the same shape. Rodgers has played five different formations this season. There is no default system, nor an instance of such a tactically flexible side proving England's finest.

Nor, perhaps, is there one with a cast list of such improbable winners since, perhaps, Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1978. It is not merely their lack of title-winning pedigree in major leagues - Daniel Sturridge and Glen Johnson only played bit-part roles in Chelsea triumphs - which sets them apart from, say, the Manchester City side of 2012, who ended their club's long wait.

It is the reality that players such as Aly Cissokho, Kolo Toure, Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto would be an incongruous sight with winners' medals, given the substandard nature of their contributions this season. Even for Liverpool, where Djimi Traore became a Champions League winner, it would represent a strange story.

City and Chelsea are relevant comparisons, if only because their path to glory is so different from Liverpool's possible route. Both, like Blackburn in 1995, were accused of buying the title, a charge that could not be levelled at Rodgers. If all three could point to managerial excellence and value-for-money signings being as significant as simple cash, the common denominator is that their breakthrough season coincided with influential, big-budget arrivals.

Chris Sutton was Britain's most expensive footballer when his maiden season at Ewood Park ended with Blackburn celebrating. Chelsea were propelled to a first title in 50 years in the debut campaigns of Petr Cech, Ricardo Carvalho, Arjen Robben and Didier Drogba, among others. City finished third in 2011, signed Samir Nasri and Sergio Aguero and saw the latter deliver the dramatic, silverware-sealing goal.

Their Liverpool counterparts are conspicuous by their absence. Simon Mignolet has proved an upgrade on Pepe Reina in goal, despite a poor month after Christmas, but other recruits have been adequate, abject or anonymous.

It has been a tale of frustration in the transfer market, whether with last summer's failed attempts to sign Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian or January's botched bids for Mohamad Salah and Yevhen Konoplyanka. Instead, this is that most unusual of phenomena, a club that has leapt into the rarefied atmosphere at the top of the division without being thrust into orbit by newly-signed superstars or the sheer force of finance.

City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United have all outspent Liverpool in the past 12 months. Indeed, with the departure of several overpaid underachievers, one theory is that Liverpool's wage bill has actually decreased under Rodgers.

It makes them abnormal. So, too, does the organic element to their progress. At this stage two years ago, Raheem Sterling came off the bench and Jon Flanagan and Jordan Henderson began in a home defeat to Wigan. It scarcely suggested they would reach such heights. Rodgers has remodelled and revived Liverpool, but with the notable exceptions of Mignolet, Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho, it has largely been with his various predecessors' players.

If it sounds a little illogical, it is probably because it is. This isn't the normal route to the top of the table. It certainly isn't the seamlessly quiet continuity of the Liverpool of old or the big-spending displays of ambitions of the nouveaux riche.

If very few tipped Liverpool for the title, it is because there were too few reasons to expect them to win it. Because, as Rodgers said, you don't just go from seventh to first.

Except that his side might. And if they do, it will make them the Premier League's most unlikely champions.

Liverpool's rise to success recalls the glory days of 1984 © Getty Images
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