In many ways I suppose I'm glad the stream I was watching kept crapping out---what I did see was the antithesis of the type of performance we'd hoped for from Liverpool, who came up against an opponent that was not so much interested in playing football as it was looking for a series of sparring matches. Yes, it was effective, and they came away with all three points and credit where it's due and you know what you're getting with Stoke and etcetera, but on the outside looking in, the style of play, and even the result, can't be anything to be proud of.
We expected more from a side that looked so good for long spells against Bolton a fortnight ago. Kenny Dalglish opted to go with almost the exact same eleven that came together to great effect in the 3-0 win at Anfield, with Martin Skrtel resuming his spot on the right after replacing the injured Martin Kelly in the first half of that win. The rest was unchanged; Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt were ostensibly partners up top, with Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing playing wider in advanced midfield and Charlie Adam and Lucas deeper, and late summer additions Craig Bellamy and Sebastian Coates made the bench with Glen Johnson.
And as we've become accustomed to in the early stages of the season, Liverpool came out of the gates flying. They poured forward in numbers, winning an early corner and pressing the hosts at every chance. Stoke fought back as best they could, but it largely the visitors' match in the opening minutes. The biggest difference from previous matches, unfortunately, was that Liverpool's early pressure didn't lead to the opener, and an opportunistic Stoke side found a way to nudge in front.
While there's some debate as to whether or not Jonathan Walters fouled Jamie Carragher first (he did) and whether or not he made an absolute meal out of the tackle (he did), there can't really be any debate that Carragher's shirt-grabbing tangle with the Stoke forward was always going to be called a penalty. Walters blasted the penalty home with Pepe Reina headed the wrong way, and Liverpool were in the worst possible scenario---down early to a side that would gladly take a goal, close the shutters, and beat the shit out of anyone trying to get in.
So that's mostly how things unfolded from the 21st minute on, with Liverpool struggling to create an end product any time they found their way forward. Luis Suarez had an chance well-blocked by Ryan Shawcross almost immediately after Walters gave Stoke the lead, but from there Liverpool looked sloppy and disjointed, playing long balls from the back and giving away possession on far too many occasions.
Despite the bus parking, it seemed like the guests had a number of chances to equalize; most notable was the quadruple save from Asmir Begovic in the 61st minute, first on Jordan Henderson's flurry of shots and then from Charlie Adam's follow-up effort. Substitutions shortly after would signal Kenny Dalglish's intent, with Craig Bellamy and Andy Carroll coming on for Henderson and the strangely tired-looking Dirk Kuyt, and while both had a discernible impact (particularly Bellamy), the breakthrough never came. A final chance fell to Luis Suarez at the death, with Begovic abandoning his goal to try to punch clear, but the Uruguayan snatched the shot wide. Three points to Stoke, and a victory for nihilists everywhere.
It's easy to attribute the absolute shithouse performance today to Stoke, and I'm mostly comfortable doing that. Both individually and collectively, they're a living, breathing case for the resuscitation of physiognomy as a viable scientific method. Football's not the word for what they try to produce, and while you can credit Tony Pulis for finding a way for his team to get results, it's enough to make you wish for blindness.
There is a place for taking Liverpool to task as well, as they were remarkably poor in some areas and barely serviceable in others. For all their impetus in the transfer market, they still lack the killer instinct when they need it most, especially against sides that are content to soak up pressure and try to not concede. It's especially difficult after conceding the opener, and Liverpool still don't have the look of a side that can turn a match on its head even if they've got a constellation of purported match winners.
Charlie Adam's the easy target, and justifiably so. He was a major disappointment on the day, trying to force the issue when Liverpool needed composure more than anything. Lucas also struggled early but looked to grow into the match, and as mentioned above, Dirk Kuyt looked somewhat fatigued after a taxing international break. Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson were likewise ineffectual, and while Luis Suarez was as active and energetic as usual, he uncharacteristically wasted a handful of chances. Low marks for Jamie Carragher as well, who could have fared better on the penalty but was out of position and a step off the pace.
For all their shortcomings, though, Liverpool never quit, and they never looked like the match had passed them by. After a start to last season when that seemed to happen weekly, it's an encouraging sign. If football were fair, the Reds would have come away with at least a point given their attitude and the chances that went begging. But it's not---it's points lost in a tough fixture, and more evidence of Liverpool's need for growth. It's a match they should have expected to win, and they should be disappointed that they didn't. But there's still promise, and the pieces are in place for this side to be very good. Even if that wasn't the case today.