Following Sunday's disappointing result against West Bromwich Albion, there were two competing narratives. On one hand there was a desire to integrate the match and result into one of the main stories of the 2011-12 season—namely the one where Liverpool can't score even though they dominate possession. And given that on Sunday Liverpool had two thirds of the chances, two thirds of the passes, and two thirds of the possession but still managed to lose by a goal to a side that looked predominantly toothless, well, it might seem an easy fit.
It wouldn't, however, be quite right, as despite that Liverpool certainly have controlled games without managing to come out ahead on the score-sheet many times this year, it's been rare for them quite so thoroughly outclass an opponent through the use of up-tempo, pass and move football. Instead, the last stretch that saw Liverpool regularly outplay opponents with an approach similar to what was seen on Sunday was in the second half of last season. The addition of not being able to score may have been a new touch to the story borrowed from the present campaign, but instead it was last year's narrative—that of the return of flowing, interchanging, ball-on-the-pitch football—that was the main one actually on display against West Brom.
The fact that Liverpool couldn't score as has so often been the case this season served to rather obscure the fact that this season Liverpool have rarely looked as they did on the weekend. The few exceptions, such as a September trip to the Britannia that saw a flying—and increasingly frantic—Liverpool side lose by a goal, stand out as the exceptions rather than the rule, and though Liverpool have often played well and dominated games this season, they've rarely done so in a way reminiscent of the second half of 2010-11.
That, as much as the loses themselves and the spurned chances, has been what has led to doubts amongst Liverpool fans that the team has in fact regressed rather than progressing after a busy summer transfer window. That this season Liverpool simply haven't looked as good with the ball even if they've had a fair bit of it is what has led to doubts when misfiring new arrivals continue to be played over proven veterans. If instead Liverpool had played the 2011-12 season just as they had after Kenny Dalglish returned the season before but somehow managed to stubbornly and repeatedly squander chances in front of goal there would have been head scratching and some measure of discontent, yes, but the questioning would not have reached nearly the levels it has.
And so Sunday's particular brand of failure must be extricated from the ongoing narrative of goalposts and an inability to finish, because to not do so is to confuse quite what Sunday's game stands for in the larger picture—both for good and ill. On the surface, at least, a return to something resembling the exciting football seen late last season seems cause for celebration, even if the end result was unfortunate from a Liverpool point of view. One imagines further that should Liverpool play their remaining few games in such a fashion they will have to be considered favourites more often than not to come away with all three points.
All of this is a good thing. It gives reason to hope that at the least the remaining league games will be fun and entertaining to watch, and it gives hope that Liverpool might head into the summer on an upward trajectory with something of an identity in place to provide a foundation for next year. But it also suggests that with the right personnel and tactics—with Kuyt and Maxi played more on the wings, with Jordan Henderson played in the middle, and with any urge to play the ball to Andy Carroll's head largely subjugated—Liverpool might well have played like they did in the second half of last season far more often in this one.
Sunday's result, in the end, gives hope for this group of players and this management team: Hope that the club might not be quite so lost on the pitch as they have appeared for long stretches of 2011-12. Yet it also casts doubts over just what has been accomplished—or rather what hasn't been accomplished—over a long and at times quite trying season with the manager abandoning what had worked in search of something that never quite came together. In some ways, how well Liverpool played against West Brom on Sunday and that aside from the inability to score it in fact looked very little like the Liverpool seen for much of 2011-12 is, instead of being encouraging, quite damning.
It is especially problematic because it wasn't the case of a season's worth of stubborn choices finally coming good. It wasn't about Jordan Henderson finding his feet on the right or Stewart Downing dominating the left or a lightbulb going off and Andy Carroll becoming an imposing target-man. Even though the result and some of the failings echoed so much that has gone wrong this season, in most of the important ways Sunday's loss was almost nothing like what had come before—and the game itself was much better for it. The ramifications of that, both positive and negative, are just as inescapable as they are inextricable.