Martin Skrtel's failed backpass in the 80th minute of Sunday's draw with Manchester City was a horrifying sight. Since taking the lead on an inch-perfect free kick by Luis Suarez, Liverpool had mostly seen off any significant threat from the visitors, and while an onslaught was likely, the home side looked capable of holding on. Another equalizer was not exactly far-fetched, but the manner in which it came was a gut punch, and it left Liverpool in the familiar spot of outplaying the opposition and ending up with very little to show for it.
But as discussed in the recap, this felt qualitatively different than the way most of last season went, and over the past few days that feeling's only strengthened. People have rightly pointed out that Liverpool played well en route to draws and losses last season; that point cannot be denied, as there's plenty of examples of Liverpool dropping points despite producing a largely positive performance. The lack of finishing's also been a frequent point of discussion, with painful similarities--especially in the first half against West Brom--to last season's profligacy already evident. These are things that need improving, and there's not really a debate to be had there.
The similarities are worrisome, certainly, but I think there's much more stock to be placed in the manner with which Liverpool conducted themselves, and the way the performance has been framed by Brendan Rodgers. Take the manager's thoughts on Skrtel's error:
"There's no blame to Martin Skrtel, I'd rather have players wanting to get on to the ball. The courage he has to get on the football and try to play is what is the most important thing."
Regrettable execution, yes, but fully in line with a committed style of play that demands players make the types of decisions that Skrtel made on Sunday. At times it'll be terrifying, and at others it'll be marvelous. Plenty were quick to praise the forty-yard back pass that Joe Allen made to Pepe Reina, but that praise only comes with both the risk taken and the execution successful.
Calling it courage might seem like a melodramatic way of talking about passing the ball at all costs, but in both examples--and for much of the match on Sunday--the players were acting with purpose and intentionality, which is what distinguishes Sunday's performance from many we've seen over the past few seasons. Through so many ups and downs it felt as though Liverpool were directionless, both on and off the pitch. Even with Kenny Dalglish, who's got as clear an idea as any of what it takes for Liverpool to be successful, there wasn't any defining style or ideology. They were good at times, they were awful at others, but on the whole they were lacking any sense of themselves other than, "We're Liverpool, so...yeah."
That's starting to change, and while the early returns are mixed (and will likely continue to be), it's good to see Liverpool heading in a definitive direction as a club. Rodgers' team sheet on Sunday was as good an example as any that this is a time of significant shifts for Liverpool, with a commitment to youth as well as quality underlined rather than maintaining a status quo for no discernible reason.
Liverpool aren't nearly there yet, and I suppose it's possible that we're witnessing another false dawn and deluding ourselves in thinking that something positive is happening when it's really just the same old song and dance. We'll find out eventually, but for now I'm more prone to believe that after three seasons of flapping in the wind, we're finally seeing Liverpool claim an identity.