As encouraging as Liverpool's performance was for long stretches against Manchester City on Sunday, that the club could only take a single point from a game they held the clear run of play in was equally as disappointing. It was the second time in as many games that a strong showing against a side ahead of them in the table ended with fans feeling as though two points had been lost rather than one gained, and it didn't help that at times Brendan Rodgers' decisions seemed to signal he was content with simply not losing.
Following the match, Rodgers was understandably full of praise for much of what his players had done. And if some of his earlier decisions had seemed those of a manager happy with the draw, it will at least have been encouraging for those looking on to see him appear less than entirely satisfied with the day's result while also unafraid to point to some of the problems that had hindered Liverpool throughout the season. Still, it cannot be entirely ignored that his words following the City match didn't always match up with his actions during it.
"It was an outstanding performance at a notoriously difficult place for teams to even score a goal," said Rodgers. "What was important for me was to see the confidence of the players, the desire, the quality and the efficiency of their game. I don't think anyone would deny that we probably deserved to win that game. The disappointing thing was that it typified our season, really, where we've been outstanding in our game but mistakes have cost us."
Before the match, the thought of a draw against the defending champions on the road might not have seemed a poor result, but after Liverpool dominated City for much of the game it was disheartening for fans to see the visitors sit back as the minutes ticked by rather than pushing for a victory that appeared there for the taking. City were second best for much of the match, yet when Sergio Aguero scored a looping wonder-striker to pull the hosts level, Liverpool rather had no response.
That lack of response—that lack of belief in their ability to pull out a late win—seemed a mentality reflected by the manager, who kept more attacking options like Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling in reserve on the bench as time slipped away. Then, with five minutes of stoppage time remaining, Rodgers removed an attacker for a midfielder, replacing Daniel Sturridge with Joe Allen. No matter what Rodgers later said to the press, at the time it seemed to signal that to not lose was his priority.
"I was really disappointed for them because they'd put so much into the game," continued Rodgers. "Obviously Aguero's finish [was] unbelievable, but from our perspective we're bitterly disappointed he was even in that position. It was a mistake, everyone was clear on that, but I can't fault the players. I thought they were absolutely brilliant today. We showed great character."
Draws against Arsenal and City—and a pair of largely positive performances—may look encouraging on paper. But on the pitch, where Liverpool showed no desire to push for the win against either after first Arsenal and then City pulled level, it's rather less so. It also means Liverpool still haven't won a match against top ten competition. And, of greatest concern, it means they have done nothing this past week to narrow the gap between them and the top four—or even the top five and its guarantee of a return to the Europa League.
In the end it all adds up to the feeling that points have been dropped rather than earned. In the end it feels as though for all that the players may have shown character earlier in the matches against Arsenal and City, when the final whistle neared neither they nor their manager in fact showed a great deal of it. And that can't help but damper any positivity that might otherwise have come from two mostly strong performances against two sides ahead of Liverpool in the table.
"We might be missing two or three players who can really help the group that clubs like Manchester City have," he added, "but I don't think you can fault the players for what they're giving in the game. Once we cut out those mistakes—which we will do, there's no question about that—draws turn into wins and we can be a real force, because we've got some really talented players."
Rodgers seems to realise that as good as his players looked at times, a pair of encouraging performances against top sides that ended in draws cannot represent a worthy goal or meaningful achievement. That in the end, encouraging isn't good enough. And that he appears equally as disappointed in dropping two points against Manchester City as he is encouraged by those generally strong performances is in itself encouraging. In his focus on mistakes needing to be cut out, however, he misses what may be the biggest problem this Liverpool side has.
At times, this group has lacked a winning mentality—the self-belief that makes a side like Manchester United pile players forward late for tying and winning goals, confident that even if their ambition means results occasionally if inevitably go against them, in the end the balance will be in their favour. It's a mentality that even the simplest of maths supports, as a win and a loss from pushing for late victories will help a club more in the table than shutting up shop to protect a pair of draws.
Rodgers is right, there are mistakes that need fixing. And doing so will lead to points. Yet against Arsenal and City, even following Liverpool's mistakes there were signs both opponents were there for the taking if only Liverpool had the ambition and self-belief to push on. Instead, on both occasions, Liverpool and their manager appeared content to settle. Now, to take the next step, it is that winning mentality—that killer instinct—that Rodgers and his players will need to learn at least as much as they need to cut out silly mistakes.