That loud bang you just heard was not the sound of Steve Bruce’s massive head finally exploding; it was bubble bursting over Liverpool, who came crashing back down to earth at the hands of Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton. Brendan Rodgers’ side was completely outplayed by The Saints, who secured a 1-0 win and received a much deserved standing ovation from the Anfield faithful. This was the worst performance from The Reds since they were dismantled by Southampton at St. Mary’s in March, and this game followed an eerily similar pattern: Southampton simply outfought and outplayed Liverpool in every department and were good value for the win.
Trying to extrapolate anything from such a dire performance is a terrifying task; I bet this is what Kermode and Mayo feel like when they have to try and review the latest Nicholas Cage film. Anyone could see this result coming a mile off. Liverpool have been riding their luck all season, and sooner or later it was going to run out. Football is, of course, a results business, and the results had been extremely promising heading in to the Southampton game, but if anyone was too busy basking in the euphoria of being top of the league and the early pace setters – the players appear to be the most guilty of this – they were given a blunt reality check.
The biggest concern is the complete contrast in performances before and after half-time; they’re a Jekyll and Hyde team in that regard. They come racing out of the blocks, score a goal in the opening half an hour and dominate the first half. Then, when the second half starts they lose their composure on the ball, their intensity, and gradually get pushed deeper in to their own half and end up holding on for the result. Whilst it wasn’t as much of a factor against Southampton – Liverpool started the game that terribly that the usual drop off in performances after the break didn’t appear to be achievable, but to their credit they still managed it – it has certainly plagued their season so far.
In some games this has been a tactical decision. Rodgers said against Villa that the idea was to sit deeper so they couldn’t exploit our lack of mobility in midfield and give Benteke and Agbonlahor space to run at us. It makes sense, too. The end of last season showed how dangerous Henderson, Sturridge and Coutinho can be away from home, particularly on the counter attack – but the trio have been dealing with other problems which has negated their effectiveness: Sturridge, despite his excellent start, is clearly struggling with his hamstring injury; Henderson is having to spend most of his time playing deeper to help Lucas and Gerrard deal with the opposing midfield; and Coutinho was still getting up to speed and is now out for at least month.
One of the things that impressed me the most about last season was how was fit the team looked. Physically they were as strong as they have been since Pako Ayesteran left the club in 2008, which they needed to be considering how critical pressing the opposition is in Rodgers’ system. This season, though, they have looked completely off the pace, particularly the midfield two of Lucas and Gerrard. The former simply doesn’t look like he’ll ever be the player he was before his cruciate injury; the latter, despite staying relatively injury free for the past season and a bit, needs to realise that at his age he physically can’t play to a high level every week for club and country every week.
Rodgers did himself no favours with a bizarre team selection. His selection dilemma over who to play in the centre of defence saw him play all four of his senior centre-backs and no full-backs, which was a complete failure. In Liverpool’s system, the full-backs are heavily relied upon to get forward regularly and offer an outlet out wide, and you can’t blame a centre-back for failing to be effective on the wing in the opposition half. He realised his mistake at half-time, but there was little help on the bench due to the litany of injury problems the squad are facing, and once Dejan Lovren headed the visitors in front early in the second half it was obvious they were never getting back in to the game.
Just as it was important not to get carried away with a brilliant start, it is equally vital that people don’t overreact after one bad game – and it was a very, very, very bad game. Losing at home to a bottom half side is never acceptable, but results like this happen all the time in the league. Worst case scenario, Liverpool end the weekend sitting in fifth place, keeping pace with the usual suspects in the race for the top four. Most fans would have taken that coming in to the season, especially with the best player in the league now having served all of his ten game suspension; they have won seven, drawn two and lost one of the ten games that he was suspended for. How he’s fit and chomping at the bit to return to action, and his return will provide a huge boost to a squad.
More than half of the squad are either injured, not yet fully fit after returning from injury, or carrying a knock that it’s limiting their effectiveness. Whilst injuries are part and parcel of the game, Liverpool lack the depth in certain positions that most of their competitors have, and so they need more fortune on the fitness front if they’re to finish in the top four. Liverpool have shown a new founded ability to grind out results when they’re not playing well, and that will be put to the next over the next month as many of their key players get healthy. This was their defeat in fourteen games, and only their fifth defeat of 2013. If they can get through the next five games still in touch with the rest of the pack, they’ll be in great shape to finish the year strongly.