In his latest column for Liverpoolfc.com, Paul Tomkins examines our victory over Southampton and looks at the impact a fit-again Lucas Leiva can have on the team.
Probably for the first time this season, you can look at the most recent five league results and say the Reds have picked up more-or-less the number of points as you'd realistically hope for.
Draws at Chelsea and Swansea (given their form) were more than creditable; and three points at home to each of Wigan and Southampton should be par for the course (you'll always get home games where you drop points against sides that finish towards the bottom of the table, but the key is for them to be rare off-days).
A point at Spurs, which was probably what the Reds deserved, would have made it three consecutive away draws at sides currently in the top seven. Pick up at least a point away from home, and win most of your home games, and it quickly becomes top-four form. As it happened, Liverpool paid for a sluggish start at White Hart Lane. You can criticise the opening 20 minutes, but you can also praise the reaction.
Slowly but surely, things are edging into shape for Rodgers' Liverpool. There's a fair way to go, and we've not seen too many "90-minute performances", but the Reds are becoming harder to beat, keeping more clean sheets and winning a few more games. The costly mistakes that were evident in the early weeks are now rarely seen.
After struggling at home in the early games - in part due to the calibre of opposition, and in part due to those aforementioned gaffes - the Reds have now won three of their last four home games in the Premier League, keeping a clean sheet in each of those victories. The second half against Wigan and the first half against Southampton showcased Liverpool at their free-flowing best.
A concern would be that the only four victories to date have come against relegation candidates, but the performances against Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs were deserving of more than just two points (a fairer reflection would have been five or six). Only the Arsenal game, out of the five big encounters so far, left me underwhelmed by the performance. Arsenal were having a great start to the season, and look an easier proposition now winter has set in (one thing that Rodgers hasn't been afforded is good timing, with regard to the fixture list).
Getting the balance right has clearly been on the manager's mind. He's tried a number of midfield permutations, to mixed results. Enforced changes at full-back also hasn't helped, and it was only against Southampton, with the return of Lucas Leiva and with Glen Johnson playing at right-back, that you got a sense of everything being in the right place.
This is not a criticism of playing players out of position, as I think far too much gets made of that. Likewise, the expression 'round peg in a square hole' gets overused. While you will always have specialists, who only really excel in one key area, many footballers have transferrable skills. Johnson, for example, was consistently good at left-back, and, as an example that playing people out of position can actually bring benefits, Jose Enrique only rediscovered his best form once moved to the left wing. Back in defence, he looks like the left-back Liverpool signed 18 months ago.
It's just that, with the line-up on Saturday, the team gelled a bit better. Once you get too many players in unnatural positions there's perhaps a breakdown of instinctive movement, where players have to take a split second longer to think about what to do. And of course, one particular player helped several others.
Lucas is brilliant at knowing where to be, and even lacking match fitness, he made a big difference in stopping Liverpool from being vulnerable to counter-attacks. He made more than twice as many tackles (eight) as the next Liverpool player (who was on three), and won seven of them.
With the return of the Brazilian, there were also fewer rookies in the team that faced Southampton. I think it's fair to say that all of the youngsters have done a very good job indeed, and some have excelled. The experience will serve them - and Liverpool - well. But it's rarely ideal for instant results.
Manchester United may have won the title in 1996 with "kids" (if you don't know what I'm getting at, Google Alan Hansen and "you don't win anything with..."), but they also had five or six very experienced players who featured in over 20 league games: Peter Schmeichel (33), Denis Irwin (31), Brian McLair (33), Gary Pallister (30) and Eric Cantona (30), with Andy Cole, Lee Sharpe and Roy Keane hardly youngsters at 25. Even the much-vaunted "kids" weren't that young: Ryan Giggs was 22, Nicky Butt 21, Gary Neville 21, Paul Scholes 22 and David Beckham 21. Only Phil Neville was in his teens (18). Contrast that with Raheem Sterling, 17, Suso, (only recently turned 19) and Andre Wisdom, 19.
Much was made of those United's kids in the mid-'90s, but Scholes and Giggs were the same age as Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson are now, and they don't seem to be classed as youngsters, with many people expecting them to perform like seasoned pros.
While United had five regulars in their early thirties 16 years ago, to help balance youth with heavy experience, Liverpool have played this season with just two: Steven Gerrard and Pepe Reina. Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez are all fully mature players, but the return of Lucas - older and more experienced than his deputies - helped add a calming presence to the middle of the park, and to the team as a whole. Not only did he help balance the formation, he helped add an older head. (It's saying something when using that to describe a 25-year-old.)
It was still a relatively young side against Southampton - at 25.4, still well below the Premier League average - but it was more than a year older, on average, than some of the sides the Reds have fielded this season. To put that into context, you'd expect a side with an average age of just 24 to be that much better in 12 months' time. So in some senses, the game against Southampton was like seeing what October's side would be like in autumn 2013.
Although we view a team as a group of individuals, the collective intelligence will surely be determined, to some degree, by their average age. Youngsters make mistakes, and inexperience can make them the weak link in the team's chain.
Another factor in a team's overall psyche is how long it has been together. A lot is made of Barcelona's youth set-up, and last week it was incredible to see an entire XI comprised of La Masia graduates (even if some, like Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, had spent time away). These players have been playing together for between 10 and 20 years, and yet they're still (mostly) fairly young men. You cannot fake or force that level of understanding. Not only have they been learning the best skills (and, equally importantly, taught how to avoid bad habits) as young boys, they've also tuned in to the same wavelength over a period of time that is just not possible with purchases.
You'll always get one or two newly-introduced players who seem naturally attuned to one another's thinking (a surprising one is Luis Suarez and Jose Enrique, given their positions), but in Barcelona's case, it's an entire team. This is the bonus of a strong youth system, and for three years Liverpool have been creating and honing their own version of La Masia. It's reaping some rewards, but it could take another decade to get anything close to where the Catalan system is currently at (given how long it's taken them to get to this level).
I've been patiently (and sometimes impatiently) awaiting the big 'lift-off' moment of the season: the dramatic turnaround, the incredible result against the odds, or the absolute hammering of an unsuspecting opponent. And it still hasn't happened. But maybe it's not necessary. If results keep improving in small increments, slowly but surely, it will add up to much the same thing.
To end with a Chinese proverb, "be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still."