Things are bad when the best thing that happens on the day is the expiration of a ban for your star striker who bit someone. It's not end of the world bad, but there are very, very few positives to take from Liverpool's dire performance on Saturday afternoon, when a more motivated and organized Southmapton side ran over them from start to finish. All the talk of things being different and increased belief in the squad might yet prove true, but today's Liverpool was the same one we've seen far too often over the past few seasons, and there's some major changes that Brendan Rodgers needs to make going forward.
Southampton 1: Lovren 53'
Rodgers' starting eleven seemed confusing ahead of kickoff--there was always a chance Kolo Toure would start at right-back, but using Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, and Mamadou Sakho in the remaining three defensive spots (apparently due to a knee injury for Jose Enrique) caused plenty of questions. The use of Iago Aspas centrally would prove to glean similarly underwhelming results, as would the decision to remain with Steven Gerrard and Lucas in central midfield.
Two early counter-attacks assuaged those concerns, with Jordan Henderson kickstarting a break down Liverpool's right before pushing an effort straight at Artur Boruc, and Victor Moses initiated another minutes later, though it again ended with an underwhelming finish that failed to test Boruc. Liverpool managed to finally do so just after the twenty minute mark, when Gerrard curled a free-kick over the Southampton wall that forced the Polish goalkeeper into a full stretch to save. Further efforts by Moses were turned away, and when Neil Swarbrick turned down a clear penalty for a Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool looked spent.
Much of the rest of the half was spent with Liverpool nervously playing the ball around the back and Southampton pressuring well, and the second half brought more of the same despite Rodgers bringing on Raheem Sterling for the ineffective Aspas. That move pushed Jordan Henderson centrally, but the change failed to provide any sort of improvement in Liverpool's ambition.
Southampton punished the hosts in familiar fashion on 53 minutes, when Lovren lost Agger in front of goal and headed past Simon Mignolet for what proved to be the winner. Agger had to come off shortly after, apparently because of injury, and from there the only highlights proved to be a perfectly-timed sliding tackle from Sakho in Liverpool's penalty area, a wonderful triple-save by Simon Mignolet to save otherwise calamitous defending, and a wonderful through ball over the top from Sturridge to play in Sterling. None of those moments affected the outcome, unfortunately, as Sterling took too heavy a touch and could only watch as the ball trickled out of bounds and Liverpool's unbeaten start to the season ended.
That Liverpool lost today isn't even really relevant to the discussion at this point. Southampton were deserved winners, as Mauricio Pochettino set his squad up with a clear plan to pressure and disrupt, and there wouldn't have been any other fair outcome today than a Southampton win.
But Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have far more to be worried about than dropping three points, which they were going to do at some point. They were Hodgson-era bad today in terms of effort and application, and few were more culpable than Steven Gerrard turned in a supremely disappointing performance, failing comprehensively in terms execution and effort. The tone he set as captain did little to inspire, and at times looked to have the opposite influence. Pouting, slumping, wandering aimlessly, he was as bad as he's been in a Liverpool shirt.
Sentiment from the start to last season, in which Gerrard produced similar performances, still lingers in that a large part of Rodgers' Liverpool tenure will be defined by how he moves the club forward while transitioning to life without their long-serving captain. Gerrard certainly wasn't the only problem, with almost everyone (aside from Victor Moses, who was very good) leaving themselves vulnerable to some sort of criticism--quickly, Mignolet was nervy with the ball at his feet, Toure less than impressive on the right, Skrtel indecisive and culpable the build-up to the goal, Agger jittery and found wanting yet again on a set piece, Sakho nervous on the left and slow at times, Lucas overwhelmed, Henderson lacking influence, Aspas further into the wilderness, Sturridge disconnected, Sterling and Alberto failing to make an impact as substitutes and Enrique absolutely atrocious--but the captain's showing was unacceptable, and while he deserves the utmost respect in terms of how it's handled, change is possible if Rodgers is brave enough to implement it.
The tone is set at the top, and the two men responsible for doing so at Liverpool were left wanting today. Rodgers' team selection was confused and chaotic, and Gerrard's leadership on the pitch was non-existent. They need to be better, as does the rest of the squad, and days like today need to become a thing of the past rather than a present in which false dawns and disappointing, self-inflicted setbacks are reality.