"I'm thinking about the game tonight and reflecting on that and how we can be better because it was very disappointing," insisted Brendan Rodgers following a terrible performance by his side on Wednesday night. "Credit to Stoke—what they do, they do very well. But my main thought is about the next game and improving our performance level."
That improvement, it's fair to say, must be non-negotiable given Liverpool currently sit mired in tenth on a meagre 25 points. Without that improvement, in fact, Rodgers would end the 2012-13 season two points worse in the league than what Kenny Dalglish managed before getting fired last year and only two points ahead of the season-long tally Roy Hodgson was on pace for before he got the sack in January of 2011.
"We were terrific [against Fulham]," he continued, "but you have got to be able to put a run of games together—if not you just keep taking two or three steps forward and making one or two back. That's been the nature of the group over the last couple of years in terms of where we have finished. We're looking to improve that. There is still an awful lot of work to do."
Unfortunately for Rodgers, after starting the season with a tough run of opponents, it's very much open to debate as to whether the club has shown signs of making any kind of consistent progress against their supposedly easier opponents in recent weeks. There have been matches where Liverpool have certainly looked improved, yes, but they have almost invariably been followed up by ones where they look as poor as they ever have in recent years.
Less a case of a side staggering slowly but inevitably forward, then, Liverpool appears to be treading water and going nowhere. If the club had followed up on a sluggish August and September with a convincing November and December, Rodgers might have had some justification for his claims, yet even facing the weakest portion of their schedule Liverpool have continued to deliver the inconsistent performances and middling points return of a mid-table side.
"We conceded soft goals tonight after a great start," he admitted. "The first goal [was] rather unfortunate—Skrtel slips and then Walters finishes really well. But the other two goals, we have to be better than that. The players have to be better in those moments.
"You have to earn the right to play in whatever game—and in particular when you come to here. You know you are going to get pressed. I have no doubt about the characters we have—we have some big characters and big players, but tonight it was just too easy for them."
A further problem for Rodgers is that increasingly his words don't match up to his actions, as when he talks of having to earn the right to play while some seem to inexplicably be held to different standards when it comes to what the manager considers proof.
Jonjo Shelvey for one has been largely ineffective in recent outings and managed to be generally invisible against Fulham—a match that saw Stewart Downing put in the sort of performance that might justify spending £20M on him. Meanwhile Jordan Henderson has been nothing but impressive in his cameos for Rodgers and his calmness under pressure would have seemed perfectly suited for a match against the likes of Stoke.
And against Stoke, while Jordan Henderson showed that he was in fact perfectly suited for the cause, unfortunately he didn't get the chance to prove that until the match was an hour gone and Liverpool were well out of the contest. Meanwhile Shelvey was once again one of the worst players on the pitch—and yet somehow he managed to stay on until the final whistle.
Then there's Steven Gerrard, who has finally begun to look something of his former self in recent weeks following the return to action of Lucas Leiva, with his game experiencing a similar uptick as Jay Spearing and Charlie Adam when paired with the Brazilian in years past. Gerrard, of course, is far more proven than either, yet judged only on his performances this season—something Rodgers claims is the case—it's impossible to justify his playing every single minute in the Premier League.
In the end, then, even with problems elsewhere it was perhaps unsurprising that it was his midfield that let Rodgers down most on Wednesday given the manager has struggled all season to construct a consistently effective unit despite access to some genuine, quality depth in the middle of the park—perhaps the only place that can be said about this Liverpool squad. For a manager who claims to value possession and pressing ahead of all else, the midfield issues are far from encouraging.
The naivety shown by Rodgers' determination to stick with the starting eleven that beat Fulham even when it didn't seem suited to Stoke is a concern, too, especially as it's another problem that has reared its head throughout the first half of the season. And distressingly for those hoping to see Liverpool improve in the second half, Rodgers' selection issues show an unfortunate tendency towards stubbornness in a manager who will need to be honest enough to admit to and learn from his mistakes if he's to have any hope of succeeding.
Hopefully, both for the club's sake and his own, in the end it will turn out that he does have the ability to be honest when it comes to his own failings. If not, things could start to get ugly for Liverpool in the new year.