By Chris Davie
Where would Liverpool be without Luis Suarez? It's a question the club have no need to be concerned with until the summer, at the earliest, but one most cynics have been only too eager answer as the Uruguayan edges his side closer to a first league title in 24 years.
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet, whose team were narrowly beaten at Anfield earlier this month, felt Liverpool would not even be Champions League contenders, let alone title frontrunners, if it wasn’t for their leading marksman. "Without Suarez, they would probably be in mid-table," was the 46-year-old's assessment.
But is Suarez really carrying the Liverpool's title push by himself?
Suarez has scored 29 goals in 29 Premier League matches this season and is only two away from equalling the joint record held by Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo for the most goals scored in a 38-game campaign.
Another landmark will be equalled if Suarez carries on creating. He's registered 12 assists so far and is on course to be only the second player, after Andy Cole in 1993-94, to top both the goals and assists charts in the same season.
The 27-year-old's influence at Anfield tallies with his marked improvement since his arrival from Ajax in January, 2011. In his first full season at Liverpool, Suarez posted a chance conversion rate of 10.19 per cent. This term, that figure has more than doubled to 21.32%.
As expected, Suarez’s chances created per match is on the increase as well. The forward averaged just over two chances created per game in the 2011-12 campaign. This year, his average is 2.69.
Where the statistics are concerned, Suarez's progression mimics Liverpool's rise from a club that finished 12 points behind a Champions League place last season to one that is currently leading the Premier League with four games remaining.
But Suarez shone last term as well. He scored 23 goals, registered five assists, and Liverpool only finished seventh. The season before that under Kenny Dalglish, Suarez was the sole inspiration and eighth place was all the club could muster.
It’s evident Liverpool needed a goalscorer to reach the top four and Suarez has stepped up to be just that, but it’s too simplistic to attribute the club’s ascendancy to the Uruguayan alone. The club needed more than that.
Daniel Sturridge’s improvement has been fundamental in Liverpool’s title pursuit. This is his first full season under Brendan Rodgers and the 24-year-old has already reached the 20-goal milestone - the first time he's done so in his career.
What’s more, Sturridge already possesses one of the most coveted attributes of any leading striker - consistency. He’s never gone more than three games without a goal and, this season, became only the second player in the Premier League after Ruud van Nistelrooy to score in eight consecutive Premier League games. In comparison, Suarez’s best streak has stretched to four matches.
Steven Gerrard also needs to be recognised for his input this term. The 33-year-old has adapted well to a deeper role, while his composure from dead-ball situations is unmatched.
The England captain has 13 goals to his name this season, 10 of which have been penalties, and they have been scored at crucial points in the campaign - the late winner at Fulham in February, two in the 3-0 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford and, most recently, two against West Ham when both Suarez and Sturridge failed to break the deadlock.
This is the first season since 2008-09 in which Gerrard has managed to score over 10 goals in the Premier League, a season which coincided with the last time Liverpool had their eyes on the title as Rafa Benitez's men fell four points short of Manchester United.
While Gerrard’s impact can be instantly recognised by his record in front of goal, Jordan Henderson’s contribution could be highlighted by his absence in Liverpool’s next three matches.
The 23-year-old was sent off late on against Manchester City on Sunday and will now be unavailable until Liverpool’s final game of the season against Newcastle United on May 11.
Henderson has emerged as Liverpool’s link between defence and attack, and Rodgers’ next tactical challenge is to find the balance in his midfield for the next three matches. Elsewhere in the title race, Manuel Pellegrini will need to stifle the damage caused by the loss of Yaya Toure, who is out for two weeks with a groin injury, but it is Rodgers who has the more difficult task.
Other than goals, Yaya Toure has scored 18 this term, 10 of which have been from dead-ball situations, Henderson has outshone the Ivorian across the board. The Liverpool midfielder has created nearly double the amount of chances, and in the defensive department, it is a similar story in terms of the number of tackles and interceptions made.
Henderson has been one of the Premier League’s most complete midfielders this season. Where the likes of Ramires, James McCarthy and Fernandinho boast strong defensive numbers but less impressive returns in the attacking third, Henderson has that rare balance between the two.
Where as most other clubs have a clear difference between attacking and defensive-minded midfielders, with Gerrard and Henderson the two are merged, as Rodgers has pointed out numerous times, his emphasis is on the balance of the team, rather than an over-reliance on a single player.
At the back, Liverpool’s defence has been far from watertight, and the club’s philosophy has been to score their way out of trouble.
And even Martin Skrtel, who’s scored more than Kevin Mirallas, Roberto Soldado and Samir Nasri, has chipped in at key moments. The centre-back found the net twice in the 5-1 demolition over Arsenal, struck two against Cardiff after Liverpool had gone 2-0 down and scored the header which capped Liverpool’s swift and stunning opening against City on Sunday.
Skrtel, who has netted seven times so far, has already surpassed John Terry's haul of four goals when Chelsea won the title in 2006 under Jose Mourinho. Centre-backs who are on a par with wingers and strikers in terms of goals scored are very uncommon in sides aiming for the Premier League trophy.
Liverpool have simply produced extraordinary efforts from all areas of the pitch.
And each problem has been provided with a solution. Aly Cissokho looked unconvincing at left-back after the season-ending injury to Jose Enrique, so in came Jon Flanagan, who impressed in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park in November, missed a month of action due to a hamstring problem, but returned to the team at the end of January and hasn’t looked out of place since.
Suarez and Sturridge were not at their brightest against City, so the onus was on Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to deliver. And the pair did just that in the absence of Liverpool’s two regular headline-grabbers.
Once again, Liverpool's success this season has been down to players making their mark when others are off the pace. Both Sterling and Coutinho have created fewer chances than the likes of Eden Hazard and David Silva this season but when they were required in the crucial test against City, neither shirked responsibility.
Rodgers' response to Poyet's prediction was accurate. "It was levelled at us that if we didn't have Luis Suarez's goals, we'd be mid-table, which is probably quite disrespectful to the other players.
"At various times while I've been here, we've had Luis out and won games, we've had Steven out and we've won games, we've had Coutinho out and we've won games, we've had Sturridge out and we've won games, so what we're building here is the collective."
Suarez is just one of many Liverpool players who have taken their game to another level in their bid for the title.
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