We've been back to the guessing game over the past few weeks with the starting eleven, and today's certainly came as a bit of a surprise--Andre Wisdom proved unable to make the squad through injury, meaning Glen Johnson returned to right-back, but instead of Jose Enrique on the opposite side, it was Stewart Downing making just his second league start and first at left-back outside of cup competition. Jordan Henderson's start in the midfield came as a bit less of a shock given his form over the last two, and the rest of the squad was as expected given the personnel available.
The way the match unfolded in the early-going was similarly familiar, with both sides looking to control possession. As they did at Anfield last month, though, Swansea were more content to try to hit Liverpool on the counter, a trend that would continue for much of the match. Neither side did much creating, with Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling fairly isolated on the Liverpool side of things, and the only real urgency coming from Enrique on the left and Johnson on the right.
Liverpool's best chances of the half came around the half-hour mark, in the midst of what would prove to be by far their best spell of the match. Sterling first controlled well from a partially-cleared corner and smashed an unstoppable half-volley past Gerhard Tremmel and off the cross bar, and a minute later some nice work on the right allowed Suarez to chip across the face of goal for Jose Enrique, who slid it past Tremmel only to see the effort flagged offside.
It wasn't exactly a perfect forty-five minutes of football, but the final thirty were very, very encouraging, and given the increased threat around the Swansea goal with solidity in front of their own, it actually seemed that Liverpool would be able to get their goal.
And then the second half happened. Aside from the few shots that Luis Suarez mustered, all of which were saved well by Tremmel, and the final drive from Jonjo Shelvey that was parried away at the near post, Liverpool were far less effective and created less of the optimism and positivity that had marked much of the previous ninety minutes of Premier League football they'd played.
It wasn't as though Swansea were overwhelming, although the hosts did have a number of set pieces deep in Liverpool's half and a continued threat from Pablo Hernandez operating on the left. The introduction of Nathan Dyer on the right was worrisome but never amounted to much, with the only real concern coming as a result of an unforgivable giveaway by Stewart Downing. Pepe Reina did well to close down the speedy winger and clear to safety, and the studs to the face that left him laying on the pitch proved more worrisome than any Swansea threat.
The introduction of Joe Cole and Shelvey were ideally to create more moving forward, but Cole was largely anonymous until swinging in a cross late in the match, and Shelvey's only meaningful involvement was the aforementioned strike. Sterling faded badly on the right, as overplayed 17 year-olds are wont to do, and the lack of Jose Enrique further forward on the left meant that Liverpool's most consistent threat was nullified.
A familiar sight as the minutes wore down, even if Shelvey's blast from distance created a glimmer of hope. Not entirely terrible, but not consistent enough for the win, and as disappointing as it was to see more points dropped, it was the type of result that the inconsistent display deserved.
Liverpool have created some sort of sweet spot in terms of a conflicting emotional experience--disappointment in the midst of feeling encouraged, and having hope that the narrative changes despite knowing that the script unfolding is one you've read before. We've seen today before, and yet there's some sort of undying belief that the repeating narrative is in service of things eventually changing.
And for what it's worth, I truly believe that it is, even if talk of "wait 'til January" is now more annoying than it is promising. Liverpool may very well improve their squad during the winter window (I mean, they have to, right?), but that doesn't change right now, and it doesn't change that there's a long ways to go from now until January 31st. There's Wednesday, for instance, when they'll head to White Hart Lane in another rather significant Premier League match, and one that'll again demand improvements are made in a short period of time.
In service of highlighting the positives, Liverpool's defense was very, very good, with Pepe Reina more confident and competent, and three of the four in the starting back line impressing. Stewart Downing was just Stewart Downing in a new position, and the sooner there's an actual left-back available the better. He didn't damage the overall performance to the point of no repair, but he adds nothing on a frighteningly consistent basis. That he was directly contrasted with Glen Johnson, who's on world-class form this season, and Jose Enrique, who's better in Downing's more natural position and new one than Downing is, did him no favors.
Midfield and attack were again a mixed bag; as mentioned above, Sterling and Suarez were isolated, and Enrique was, along with Johnson, among the most threatening on the day. Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson combined for a solid if unspectacular performance early, but the former continues to show signs of wear and tear as the season continues. Once again we got the best--or worst, I suppose--of both worlds with Steven Gerrard, as the captain produced a handful of cutting passes while also giving away possession needlessly and gifting Swansea one of their best chances of the match.
Positive, negative, optimism, pessimism. This is Liverpool right now, for better or worse. Or better and worse. It doesn't appear that we can have one without the other at the current moment, and while that's incredibly frustrating, it also creates a strange sense of hope that it won't be like this forever. Because it can't, right?
Unless it can.