For the first time this season, Brendan Rodgers called on an unchanged eleven, and with their performance last time out--dominating possession, scoring a bucket of goals, looking every bit the type of squad that could flourish under the manager--few could argue with the decision. Suso and Raheem Sterling flanked Luis Suarez up front, Steven Gerrard was the more advanced of the three-man midfield as Nuri Sahin and Joe Allen sat deeper, and Andre Wisdom stayed on the right, with Glen Johnson on the other side of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel in the middle.
It was evident early that they wouldn't have anywhere near the amount of joy they did at Carrow Road, however, as Stoke quickly got to their brutish, physical style of play. Liverpool were disrupted and disjointed as they tried to piece things together, but without the lift of an early goal (or even the fluidity on offer last weekend), it was a predictably ugly early going, with Robert Huth's stamp on the chest of Luis Suarez going unnoticed and unpunished.
Sadly that never really changed, even as Liverpool had a few half-chances that ultimately failed to test Asmir Begovic. Suarez was active and energetic but blunted at every turn, and with Lee Mason hesitant to blow the whistle or book any of the Stoke back line, there was little for the hosts in the way of attack. For their part the visitors were happy to soak up pressure and break quickly, and on a handful of occasions they were close to taking advantage of errant passes as Liverpool nervously played it across the front of their own goal.
Steven Gerrard's swerving strike from distance was the best chance of the opening half, followed shortly by a near-miss by Daniel Agger after Suso scooped one over the defense into space. As is so often the case against Stoke, huffing and puffing only goes so far, and for most of the opening half Liverpool could barely muster much of either.
Thankfully the second half started a bit better, even if it didn't ultimately glean any more positive results. Within ten minutes Liverpool had another terrific chance, this time with Gerrard playing a perfectly-weighted diagonal ball for the onrushing Glen Johnson, who cut inside his marker, control with one-touch, and drove a half-volley well over Begovic's goal.
Suarez topped Johnson's chance minutes later, with a long run and dribble through the Stoke defense leading to a left-footed strike that was inches wide of the post. It was a lovely, mazy run, and one that would have flown in last weekend. No such luck today, and as it would turn out, it was one of the last real chances on goal that Liverpool would have.
Strikes off the goalpost and a return for Joe Cole would follow; Raheem Sterling, Martin Skrtel, and Suarez would all hit the post on the near side before the match was up. Sterling couldn't drag a bouncing cross back across goal, Skrtel tried to scoop it from the byline, and Suarez went for straight power, reminiscent of his goal against Sunderland two seasons ago that beat Simon Mignolet from an impossible angle. Nothing doing today, though, and a late Cole volley that flew into the depths of the Kop proved to be Liverpool's last chance.
Today wasn't entirely unlike any other match with Stoke City over the past few years, and while we can talk about changes in the squad and managers and styles and etc., we can't get past the fact that once again Liverpool were stymied by a team that has little interest in playing football. And as much as we all hate Stoke--and we really, really hate Stoke--they did their job today, and if Liverpool were the side tasked with playing the football, you'd have to say they were average at best.
Steven Gerrard was one of the worst culprits today, as he's so often been in the early going of Brendan Rodgers' managerial tenure at Liverpool. He gave away possession far too often, particularly in the final third, and didn't make any adjustments as the match wore on. With Nuri Sahin looking off the pace a bit, the home side had to rely on the consistency of Joe Allen, which doesn't really mean much with the result not coming.
The inability to get goals falls on the shoulders of Luis Suarez yet again, but he didn't get any sort of direct support and was once again tasked with doing much of the work on his own. Suso and Raheem Sterling each had their moments, with the former far more positive, but neither did much of anything in front of goal. We know that Suarez can't be relied upon to do all the work--last weekend was a one-off, and days like today further indict the club's inability to add (or at minimum, not substract) support.
Calls highlighting the clean sheet don't carry much weight; the back line was serviceable, with Agger leading the charge, but it's not like Stoke did much threatening on the day. Peter Crouch barely had any touches in the first half and didn't get much more in the second, and the only real chances for the guests came as a result of the aforementioned nervy passing by Pepe Reina and others.
Matches against Stoke don't provide many lessons, so it's hard to take anything else away other than the fact that Liverpool still struggle to score goals against sides that are determined to keep them from doing so. Possession and passing are great and all, but winning ugly is something that Liverpool haven't done well lately, and that they need to improve is the only real takeaway from today.