With most of Liverpool's internationals making their return to action, Saturday's team sheet was heavily changed for the third and final game of the club's North America tour. Most significantly, Dani Pacheco, Alberto Aquilani, and Suso—three of the more promising players from the first two matches—found themselves out of the lineup entirely. Though whether it was a sign that the trio have already locked down roles in the squad for the coming season or whether it means their chance has passed will likely remain unclear until Thursday when Liverpool kick off their Europa League campaign against FC Gomel in Belarus.
For fans who made the trip to Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium and those watching on television, most of the day's excitement would come from the chance to see the return to action of Euro 2012 participants Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, and new signing Fabio Borini. Before getting to them, however, a painful first half of football—Liverpool's worst of the pre-season to date by a quite comfortable margin—would have to be endured.
An especially poor start for Charlie Adam, with the midfielder turning the ball over to Tottenham twice in the first minute of the game, would set the tone for the rest of the half, one that ended with only midfielder Jonjo Shelvey and striker Adam Morgan deserving any kind of praise. If one was inclined to be kind, the summer heat and mid-day kickoff might come in for at least some of the blame for the poor team performance, but if Liverpool's starting eleven against Tottenham in Baltimore represents something close to what might be expected for Thursday's Europa League match against FC Gomel, then Adam and Jay Spearing's contined ineffectiveness in midfield while Stewart Downing and Joe Cole remained invisible on the wings will be worrying.
In particular, that Cole played for the first time on the left to make room for Downing on the right makes Pacheco's exclusion even more difficult to understand after the young attacker had been one of the club's best players in the first two games playing as a tucked-in left winger. Still, Cole might have had the best day of Liverpool's underwhelming attacking quartet, as though he provided no spark or cutting edge to speak of with the ball he at least brought an attempt to provide passable off the ball movement. The same couldn't be said for Spearing, Adam, and especially Downing, as all remained painfully static throughout their time on the pitch.
For Downing, that the player is a recent returnee might seem an excuse, but as in the case of Jose Enrique's struggles it's worrying because of the way in which it continues concerns about the player that can now be said to have carried over from last season. In the end, though, the simple truth was that none of Spearing, Adam, or Downing looked capable, effective, or even interested in playing something resembling pass and move football, while Cole at least looked willing if ineffective. Pre-season or not, with the club's first competitive match of the season in five days that has to be a concern.
The second half saw Jordan Henderson come on for Adam along with Nathan Eccleston, Raheem Sterling, Andre Wisdom, and Peter Gulacsi for Adam Morgan, Stewart Downing, Jon Flanagan, and Brad Jones. Immediately, Hederson provided a spark to Liverpool's midfield that had been missing throughout the opening forty-five minutes, pressuring Tottenham and passing the ball crisply and quickly, while up front Sterling and Eccleston's running gave Spurs' high defensive line more trouble than they'd had at any point until then.
The real boost for both the fans and the team, though, would come just after the sixty minute mark when Lucas, Steven Gerrard, Fabio Borini, Danny Wilson, Stepehn Sama, and Jack Robinson replaced Spearing, Shelvey, Cole, Skrtel, Carragher, and Enrique. Suddenly, and for the first time in the pre-season, Liverpool had something that resembled a fully functioning central midfield trio, and it provided the basis for ten or so minutes of the best football the club has played under new manager Brendan Rodgers. It would be an entirely too-brief renaissance.
Andy Carroll for Eccleston after 70 minutes marked the final change of the day for Liverpool, and though the striker was willing, his heavy touch and poor passing won't have many observers improving his chances of remaining at Liverpool. His arrival also saw Liverpool begin to transition away from the crisp passing game that had sprung to life with Henderson's introduction and been further encouraged by the arrival of Gerrard and Lucas, replacing it instead with lofted balls over the top as the clock ticked towards ninety and the mantra Aim for Andy's head took hold.
Despite the late regression, Liverpool still could have won the match in the 90th minute when Sterling broke clear down the right. Highlighting his youth and inexperience, though, the young winger kept his head down, crossing low and straight to a scrambling Tottenham defender while Fabio Borini ran unmarked to the back post. Still, on the whole it was another promising performance for Sterling along with most of the second half participants, including Borini, with the Italian eager if a little sloppy in his first action for Liverpool. For most who played in the first half, however, there isn't much that's positive beyond cliches about gaining fitness—and along with that, hopes that the players likely to make up the first eleven who were more heavily involved in the second half can stay healthy.