Football can be awfully cruel sometimes, can’t it? After four wins on the trot, Liverpool travelled to Southampton in good spirits, hoping their win against Spurs last weekend was to be the catalyst for a strong end to the season. What actual transpired at St. Mary’s, however, was just so typically Liverpool: whenever, this season, there is a game they play with any real expectation or incentive to win, they s**t the bed. Just when you think they’ve turned the proverbial corner in their season it ends up just being a u-turn and we’re back to square one.
Fortunately I was far too hungover to actually watch the game live yesterday. Somewhat masochistically, though, I put myself through the extended highlights, which made for difficult viewing; it was not just the result, but the manner of defeat which was hardest to take. Liverpool were completely outplayed for large periods of the match. Sure, Southampton boast some very good players and are fighting for their lives, but - and not for the first time this season - Brendan Rodgers got his team selection all wrong and it cost us dearly.
We always look fragile in midfield without Lucas, who still looks a yard off the pace since returning from his injuries - hopefully a good pre-season will rectify this. We’ve struggled when we’ve played a three-man midfield this season, so to play with two midfielders - particularly Allen and Gerrard, both of whom are pretty one-paced - was just asking for trouble. It was just a baffling decision, really. We look a much better team when Henderson is playing because he brings energy and dynamism, something we otherwise lack, so his exclusion today was ridiculous, especially considering Allen has been suffering from a shoulder problem that requires surgery.
It was just a car-crash of a game. Johnson and Sturridge both somehow performed worse than they did last week against Spurs, while Martin Skrtel continues to play his way out of Anfield. The startling drop in form of Skrtel, Liverpool’s player of the year last season, is definitely cause for concern. Under Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke the Slovakian matured in to one of the best defenders in the league, but since Rodgers’ arrival he looks like the erratic centre-back he was a few seasons ago. We lack a good defensive coach because we make the same mistakes over and over, and that is something that needs addressing because we struggle to defend - most worryingly set-pieces - as a side from the first team down to the U18s.
The side’s inability to overcome adversity on the pitch constantly prevents them from putting a winning run together - it was the same last season, too. We generally play good football, don’t have a problem scoring goals, but we lack the toughness that most of the sides above us possess; we’re like an Arsenal-lite. It is partly understandable; we have a young squad that lacks Champions League and international experience, and the step up in expectation coming from to a lesser club to Liverpool - where the demand for success is still unreasonably high given what we’ve achieved over recent seasons- can be overwhelming for a player.
The problem in the internet age is that every single game is scrutinised under a microscope and fans’ opinions change on a weekly basis; we were the best thing since sliced bread last week, and now we’re never going to finish in the top six. The hyperbole from the pessimists and the optimists is way over the top, and there is no sense of looking at the bigger picture. This was always going to be a season of transition for Liverpool, and while Rodgers has done a lot of good things, he undermines those by constantly making costly mistakes when it comes to team selection.
With this defeat and Arsenal beating Swansea, fifth place looks out of the picture. Just as well, really, as we’re not the fifth best side in the league so it’s pointless fooling ourselves in to thinking otherwise or underestimating how much work there is to be done to get us back in the top four. There is nothing that the remaining fixtures this season will tell us that we didn’t already know, we just need to secure a top six finish and then look to next season, where we need a lot of work doing. We’ve won nine, drawn two and lost five since the return of Lucas in December, which is close to being Champions League form, but we’re still three or four signings way from realistically being there.
With Carragher retiring, Coates seemingly not rated by the manager, and Skrtel regressing in to the hapless mess he was when he made his debut to Havant & Waterlooville, Liverpool are going to need at least two new centre-backs next season, maybe more unless we decide to try Wisdom or Kelly in the centre, where they both originally played when they entered the youth setup. And another full back to keep Johnson and Enrique on their toes. And a physically dominant centre-mid who will stop us looking like we’re running through treacle. And another top match winner to give us more depth in attack and take the pressure off Suarez. No pressure, then, Brendan.