A pair of loses to title favourites Manchester City and Chelsea on the road, while certainly disappointing, weren't entirely unexpected, even if the manner of the loss to City in particular was disappointing given Liverpool edged the run of play. Realistically though, a result for Liverpool in either game was always going to be seen as a bonus rather than the expectation, and so the question today isn't what went wrong—it's what comes next.
"It was always going to be a tough schedule for us, even if we had everyone fit, because of the squad being so thin," said Brendan Rodgers after the match as the manager spoke to his disappointment with the result but not his players' efforts. "But I can only give credit to the players. We're disappointed with the result, but we have taken on two squads that are some of the strongest in Europe. For us, it demonstrates again the work we have to do."
Some of that work will take place off the pitch, with reinforcements expected in January as Liverpool look to sustain their top four form from the first half of the season and secure Champions League football for the first time in five seasons. The more immediate concern, though, will be on the pitch. Because unless a few new signings can be brought in almost immediately, fielding a competitive lineup in the coming weeks could prove difficult.
Midfield looks a particular problem, with Joe Allen having taken an injection to play and now likely to miss a few weeks with an adductor strain made more serious by his inclusion on Sunday. Jordan Henderson is similarly short of fitness, while Lucas has struggled to cope with having played three matches in just over a week and now faces another quick turnaround, with only two days between the Chelsea match and Liverpool hosting Hull City.
Twelve Days Of Transfermas: Two Instant Impacts
Liverpool struck gold last January when they bought Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. Who could give them the same type of result this time around?
Elsewhere, Philippe Coutinho appears increasingly tired, Mamadou Sakho is likely to be out some time with a hamstring injury, there's an ever-growing black hole at left back, and even Luis Suarez was showing signs strain against Chelsea. It's clear the congested fixture list has worn down an increasingly thin squad, and the question is whether there's anything left for a stretch of matches Liverpool must win to keep pace near the top of the league.
It always made a kind of sense to leave things unchanged against Cardiff—it was the most winnable of Liverpool's three matches to end December and the club were coming off the high of a 5-0 thumping of Spurs—but even before City and Chelsea, resting a few key players in at least one of those games seemed the only sensible approach to a congested fixture list. Rodgers, though, believes he didn't have the depth to do that.
"It's still very much open," he insisted despite the losses dropping Liverpool to fifth and those growing depth concerns. "On Christmas Day, we were top of the league; a few days and games later, we're fifth. I think that's the way it will go between now and the end of the season. It was difficult, there was no balancing—we had to play the same team bar one. I looked at Manchester City's team yesterday and I think they changed seven players. Today, Chelsea were able to do that."
Liverpool may not have had the depth to change as many players as clubs like City and Chelsea, but for Rodgers to suggest there were no changes he could have made feels disingenuous. Luis Alberto, though clearly a player for the future more than the present, is a £7M signing who could have given Coutinho, or perhaps even one of the exhausted or injured midfielders, a match off, and loanee Victor Moses was an option against City.
One can understand why Rodgers would want to play his strongest side in what could be the two toughest matches Liverpool face this season—on the road against the two sides that remain undefeated at home and are favourites to finish first and second. And it's clear the club doesn't have the squad depth of either. Still, there are changes Rodgers could have made that would have put Liverpool in a stronger position to face Hull City on Wednesday.
Liverpool's season will succeed or fail not by their results to end the first half of the season against City and Chelsea. It will succeed or fail by results against the likes of Cardiff and Hull at home. It will succeed or fail by results against Stoke and Aston Villa, the two sides that follow Hull in the league and the distraction of a rematch with Oldham in the FA Cup. Anything gained against City and Chelsea on the road was always going to be a bonus.
It's hard to fault Rodgers for the belief and optimism his team selection showed. Yet coming off a pair of matches he and fans would have simply hoped for a result in and heading into a series of games Liverpool must win to keep pace near the top of the table, he may today be wishing he had been more of a realist and managed his exhausted, injury-ravaged squad with an eye to the next month rather than just the next match.