Liverpool's early season struggles continue as they produce their poorest display yet, dropping all three points at Anfield to Arsenal. It was roundly disappointing and, on the heels of Friday's debacle, the worst possible performance. The football might be changing and the personnel are somewhat different, but Liverpool still present as the same indifferent, ineffective squad that's stumbled and stuttered their way through the past two seasons.
Arsenal 2: Podolski 31', Cazorla 68'
There's little point in recapping what amounted to a fairly comfortable ninety minutes for the visitors--Liverpool rarely made it difficult and couldn't convert when they did, with only Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling (surprise, surprise) consistently threatening Arsenal from their respective positions. The problem with that is that Allen's now a makeshift holding midfielder, not a playmaker, and Sterling is a 17 year-old winger that was in his second Premier League match ever and could not, should not be held responsible for making Liverpool an effective side. That they're where Liverpool are ostensibly headed is encouraging, and if the cameo from Jonjo Shelvey--in which he was again effective, forceful, and forward-thinking--is an indication of changes to come, then today wasn't a complete waste.
The sad truth is that in many regards it was, though, with Arsenal easing to victory and leaving Liverpool looking like a side that'd be lucky to finish in the top half of the table. Things likely and hopefully won't end that way, but on current evidence it's hard to see how Liverpool can possibly be any worse. Arsenal can certainly be better, and at times looked vulnerable. But they took the chances they had and deservedly came away with the win in a match that Liverpool never looked like winning.
Nowhere is Liverpool's general malaise and disinterest better encapsulated than in the play of Steven Gerrard, who set an unforgivable tone as captain, lacking in commitment and looking as though he couldn't care less about the way he or the side played. That's overly harsh and most certainly untrue, but if he's the one responsible for pushing Liverpool forward on the pitch, he's got to be held to a higher standard. The performances he's produced this season simply aren't good enough, and that's ignoring whether or not he "fits" into a new style of play. Sure, he's all explosions and ranging passes and thundering tackles and whatever, and that might not lend itself to a more patient, possession-based style of play. That's okay.
What's not okay is looking completely inflexible and only putting forth the effort when it seems like it's not an inconvenience. Too often this season he's done only what's comfortable, and today, with Liverpool desperately need of a bolt up the ass, he went missing, sauntering through the midfield and giving away the ball without a care to be seen. He'll say the right things afterwards about today not being good enough and the lads knowing what they need to do and pushing on from here, but there's a point at which he needs to start doing some of those things himself.
Concerns about Pepe Reina's play in goal aren't going away either, with two goals conceded and the goalkeeper taking fire for both. I'm more forgiving on the first, as Gerrard's sloppiness created a well-taken counter by Arsenal, but the second was yet another misstep in a stretch that's seen his stock plummet remarkably. He made a couple of good saves today and is still competent enough in distribution; he never looks convincing in minding his net, though, and if Liverpool need patience piecing it together in attack, they need stability and confidence at the back. Right now, Pepe Reina is neither.
The singling out of Reina and Gerrard is an obvious and uncomfortable task, as is the complete dearth of options to turn a match in Liverpool's favor. We can't have this discussion without mentioning Friday, and while both Jonjo Shelvey and Stewart Downing turned in shifts worthy of praise after coming on, neither are match-winners and shouldn't have to be treated as such. But with Oussama Assaidi not yet fit and Samed Yesil not yet through puberty, there isn't anything else to hope for. That this wasn't addressed in some manner prior to the window's close is absurd.
Some have misconstrued this displeasure with hypocrisy or knee-jerkism. It's not. Liverpool have needed more depth up front as it became clear that Dirk Kuyt, Maxi, Craig Bellamy, and Andy Carroll would be moved elsewhere this summer, and when Fabio Borini was the only incoming forward, plenty were clamoring for depth. More bodies, more options, and more quality. That's never wavered.
Concern about the focus on bringing in Clint Dempsey and shipping off Carroll hasn't changed either. Disappointment that neither are at Liverpool now isn't some sea change of opinion about either player, it's anger and confusion about the club's failure to land a target they've been after for most of the summer and letting go of someone who provides depth up top. Not adding Dempsey is fine by me in other circumstances; not adding Dempsey when he was one of the few targets that would have added, at minimum, another body in attack is definitively not fine, especially with Carroll headed in the other direction.
We didn't learn much today about Liverpool today that we didn't know already, and today's sentiment is the polar opposite of what we were left with after the draw with City. The most optimistic among us will attribute it to growing pains--the type of performance you'd expect from a squad still learning how to play with each other and with a new style. Being further optimistic, we could say that the work of Howard Webb prevented Liverpool at least one penalty and perhaps another, and his apparent distaste for something resembling objectivity restricted the hosts from having a level playing field.
That seems like a bridge too far, though, and the few positives from today pale in comparison to the very worrying realities facing Liverpool. A goalkeeper and captain fading in influence and form, a thin squad tasked with a busy slate of matches in the fall, and the need to overcome an approach that leaves them looking lost, insecure, and unconvincing.
Struggling while growing is understandable and expected. But struggling while making the same old mistakes across the board and calling it growth is neither, and it needs to change.