Those looking for an immediate revolution walked away sorely disappointed today, as Liverpool eventually regressed into their same old insecure, ineffective, and insufferable pattern at the Hawthorns. A fairly bright first half performance was completely erased by West Brom's opener, with the second half proving a neverending series of calamities that continued until the final whistle. This is a project, to be sure, and if this is ground zero, there's a long way for Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool to go.
West Brom 3: Gera 43', Odemwingie(p) 64', Lukaku 77'
There was a sense of optimism in the build-up, mostly based off solid displays at Anfield against Gomel and Leverkusen, and that Brendan Rodgers selected his strongest possible eleven--Jose Enrique was a late omission due to injury--only strengthened the hope that his first Premier League match as Liverpool manager would be one to remember. It was the same formation as the last two, and with Martin Kelly in as the only change, there was little reason to expect any sort of major collapse.
What we didn't necessarily expect was the level of skittishness that Liverpool displayed in the early going, with West Brom carrying nearly all of the possession in the opening minutes and constant giveaways whenever the guests managed a touch. The hosts did all of the pressing and looked far more convincing, as the visitors were left to find their legs just to maintain possession.
That eventually happened, thankfully, and for much of the rest of the half Liverpool pieced together the type of play we witnessed the last two times out. There was very clearly a plan, and it was being played to some semblance of success. Were it not for the continued wastefulness in front of goal--a clear header for Luis Suarez the most notable--they might have had a lead, and were it not for the uncharacteristic sloppy play from the captain, there would have been a very promising cohesion throughout the squad.
But it was all undone just before the half as Zoltan Gera blasted West Brom into the lead, controlling a clearance with his chest before smashing an unstoppable half-volley into the top corner. There was nothing anybody could have done about it, and it was a goal of undeniable quality. On the balance of play a lead for West Brom at the break was fair, but neither Gera's goal nor West Brom's play should have given way to what we witnessed in the second half.
The collapse started at the back, although Gerrard's presence in the midfield certainly didn't help anything moving forward. Liverpol didn't start the second half any livelier than they finished the first. A Suarez free-kick on the edge of the area got Liverpool a good look, but in general they once again seemed on the back foot and unsure of themselves as they sought an equalizer.
Martin Skrtel's literal collapse left Shane Long free on goal in the 58th minute, and as Daniel Agger tried to catch up he made contact with the forward, who went down in a heap in the box, earning a penalty for West Brom and a straight red for Agger. Thankfully for Liverpool, Pepe Reina guessed right as Shane Long produced one of the worst spot kicks in memory, and the guests were able to keep their deficit to one.
It wouldn't last long, though, as once again Skrtel was to blame for a West Brom penalty. I'm still unconvinced about this--yes, the Slovakian lingered far too long, and made a clumsy attempt at a clearance once he knew Long was coming. That Long fell to the turf seemed to be no fault of Skrtel's, but Phil Dowd saw it as such and awarded the home side their second penalty in just over five minutes, which Peter Odemwingie placed past Reina, who had guessed right again, this time to no avail.
Liverpool were deflated from there, and Romelu Lukaku's header just outside of twenty minutes to play killed them off. It was almost a carbon copy of last year's failings, with the edge in possession and chances (at least early), and then a complete collapse once things went the other way. Some signs of life, especially in the first half, but on the whole, a miserable way to start the new season.
Brendan Rodgers won't have been impressed with much today, and what he can feel positively about is muddied by the fact that, on the heels of a 0-3 result, talking optimism feels too forced. His Liverpool were solid if unconvincing as they worked their way through the first half, but as the match wore on and they faced increasing adversity, the side went into the type of shell that we've seen far too often over the past two seasons.
I suppose we can acknowledge those few points of positivity up front--Joe Allen settled in quickly and was nigh-on perfect in the passing game, Luis Suarez showed glimpses of his wriggling best, Pepe Reina actually gave a positive account of himself in spite of the scoreline, and, for the first 45, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger weren't absolutely atrocious.
And that's probably about it. Everywhere else there were problems, and everywhere else Liverpool needs improvement. The injury to Jose Enrique underlined once again the need for depth at the fullback position, with a rusty Martin Kelly forced into action and Glen Johnson looking unfamiliar with a left-back role his filled to greater effect last season. Lucas was solid but lacking in match fitness, and Joe Allen a bit light in the tackle and Steven Gerrard absolved of defensive duties, the midfield wasn't as good as we'd hoped. And as noted above, Gerrard was very, very poor, giving away possession and committing the type of dispassionate mistakes that have cause concern throughout his past two injury-riddled seasons.
Up top all three showed signs of life, but there was little of the inward movement that saw interplay and interchanging that gleaned success against Gomel and Leverkusen. Fabio Borini and Stewart Downing were both ineffective, with the former proving far too anonymous and the latter resistant to much in attack other than crossing poorly with his right foot. It was a strategy that most were guilty of, and it was one that was as clear an indication as any that the change Liverpool are undergoing still hasn't quite taken hold.
Then there was the comically tragic substitution of Joe Cole, who was "wasted on the bench" and came on for Lucas with twenty minutes to play, only to come off ten minutes later with an injury. Andy Carroll made a cameo and worked his socks off, but it was a sad statement on Liverpool's depth that Joe Cole is a front-line attacking substitution. Also, that he couldn't last more than ten minutes.
In the end, Liverpool weren't good enough for long enough, and they paid the price dearly. It's hard to be patient on days like today, making the fact that there'll likely be more of them even harder to stomach. There were signs that progress is on the way, but on the whole there were far too many of the same old sins being committed. We know Liverpool need to get better, we know they need depth, and we know they need to make significant changes.
Today wasn't a lesson, it was a reminder.