With Suarez ineligible and Gerrard injured against Sporting Braga, Kenny Dalglish had almost no choice but to play at least two of Poulsen, Spearing, and Cole. It didn't go well, even if the final scoreline is hardly insurmountable in a two-legged European competition. Moreover, with the lack of obvious options and no league match coming up on the weekend, one could hardly accuse the manager of trying to nurse a cynically weakened squad through on a Thursday to improve the potential for points on a Sunday.
The side Liverpool put out against Braga was, bar perhaps one contentious option, the strongest one at Dalglish's disposal. There can be no sadder indictment of the club's current depth than that, and no clearer reminder that for all that there may still be a number of good players at the club, this is by far the weakest Liverpool squad at the end of a string of years where most agreed the club's biggest concern was a lack of quality depth.
Some might talk of the future and giving minutes to the kids, but the most likely candidate on that front is Jonjo Shelvey, out injured after a run of games that suggested Dalglish indeed thought highly of him. Then there is Pacheco
, who for all the love from the cheap seats hasn't seen a single minute of action under the new manager and who one must therefore imagine Dalglish has little belief in, at least for now. After that one gets to a string of promising kids, most too young to need to shave regularly, who likely won't be ready to meaningfully contribute for two or three years--if ever. A cameo in a clicking side for that sort of player might be one thing; deciding that Christian Poulsen isn't up to snuff and throwing a Suso or Sterling into the deep end amongst an already patchwork and not particularly familiar squad and asking them to provide some kind of magic would be something else entirely.
Though even if the one young midfielder he trusts is injured and the other clearly either not trusted or not ready, and even if one supposes that the forgotten Milan Jovanovic is no better than the three irregulars who did play, it's more than a little surprising that Dalglish went with all three of Cole, Spearing, and Poulsen, since Maxi Rodriguez was by all accounts healthy and had just come off a solid showing against United. Rotation may be necessary, but with a week off before the next game and the player coming off an at least competent display, it seemed an unnecessary switch, especially as it lead to Jay Spearing being shifted out to the right of midfield. In fairness to Spearing, when he finally moved into the center to partner Lucas when Poulsen left the pitch, he managed to turn his performance into something less than the complete trainwreck that had been on display for the first sixty-odd minutes, though that only increases the head scratching nature of both he and Poulsen starting on the pitch while a more natural and less rusty wide player sat on the bench.
Regardless of that, though, at least two of them were always going to start. Meanwhile, the manager would simply have to cross his fingers and hope for a cagey draw in Portugal before waiting to see if that extra week would lead to Gerrard and Carroll both being available from the start of the return leg at Anfield. In the end, though, that draw never seemed on the cards with Poulsen lumbering ineffectively for the first two thirds of the match and Joe Cole sticking around for the entire ninety to patrol his little Bermuda Triangle on the left, where attacking moves went to die. In Cole's case, perhaps nothing summed up his day better (or worse, as the case may be) than when in injury time, with Liverpool straining for an equalising away goal, he drove towards the corner flag with two Braga players covering him. Turning with the ball, he saw Glen Johnson behind him in acres of space to deliver a cross to three waiting in the box, but instead of laying off the simple ball he twisted and turned and tried to beat both men covering him before eventually retreating back up the pitch and passing to a teammate on the half-way line. Just one more selfish play lacking in the slightest hint of footballing intelligence from quite possibly the worst free signing the club has ever made, at least when it comes to a return on the weekly wage investment.
More than anything, it's a bit like watching Ryan Babel--if Babel didn't have any pace or a dangerous shot. And while saying he needs to work back to match fitness is one thing, it's quite something else when he continually shows the game intelligence of a nine year old striker who hasn't quite figured out you're allowed to pass to teammates.
The entire situation, the critical lack of depth, might not have been so bleak were it magically three or four years ago and Christian Poulsen the destroyer of Sevilla was on hand to break up play and threaten attackers with grievous bodily harm. Though in retrospect it is hard not to wonder if even then it may have been the speed of the Spanish League, covering for deficiencies that would have seen him exposed in the Premier League, that was making him look a solid player. At least, one imagines, he would have been somewhat closer to the player occasionally remembered than the one who has been on display at Liverpool and Juventus over the past few seasons, and least Joe Cole too would have been a useful squad player in years past. Though then in his case, and despite how highly people rate him in the memory, the reality is that one would have to go back even further to find a time when he was guaranteed to start week in and week out rather than being a useful--though at the time fit--depth player akin to the one he replaced at Liverpool.
In the end, all of this is rather stark confirmation of just how shallow this Liverpool side is. It starts right at the back, where the club currently has all of one healthy natural fullback to go along with one injured fullback, one injured centerback who had very nearly reached the point he could be considered a natural fullback before said injury, and one aging centerback who used to play as a defensive fullback at a time before he lost the pace to even play as a defensive fullback. From there you get to some of the players who started yesterday further up the pitch, one of whom has never been considered quite good enough to ever become a mainstay at the top level and two who even three years ago--in days other clubs might have actually wanted them on the payroll--would have still likely been on the fringes of any squad hoping to challenge for trophies. It isn't encouraging stuff.
Despite the weakness at fullback, the club has just about managed to hold itself together at the back with bailing wire and duct tape in recent weeks, while it is that shallowness further up the pitch that has at times helped destroy any hint of cohesive play and pass and move football whenever a regular starter hasn't been fit and available. Liverpool does still have a phenomenal core, aging but recently bolstered by January arrivals, as was seen when that core of players dominated front-runners Manchester United on the weekend. But more than ever it is displays like yesterday's that show just how much damage was done to the club in the wake of 2009's nearly-there campaign with the subsequent campaign by the then-owners to turn a profit in every passing transfer window.
It isn't the end of the world, though, Thursday's result. The club has another week to try to get Andy Carroll fully up to speed. They have a week with Gerrard on the trainer's table, hoping that he might somehow end up healthy enough to play in the return leg. And it is only a goal deficit that they face in a week's time, after all. If both can play, with perhaps either Maxi coming back or at the very least only Spearing being featured in midfield, the story could be very different with the Kop backing them. Still, it won't do for the long-term, and even if the core of starters is more than good enough to challenge for trophies, Liverpool at the very least need quality options they don't currently have at as many as a half-dozen different positions.
Yet in spite all of that, without quite possibly the most foolish tackle of the season by a Liverpool player to gift Braga their penalty and subsequent goal, what turned out an almost laughably weak and tentative side could have been going into that return leg at Anfield even with their opponents rather than down a single goal.
Perhaps it's not all bad, then, but with how thin this squad is they're going to need a bit of luck on the fitness front to even have a chance of continuing in the Europa League or inching higher up the domestic table.