Liverpool 2 Sterling 23', Sturridge 79'
Southampton 1 Clyne 56'
Well that was certainly something.
Raheem Sterling scored early, Daniel Sturridge scored late, and in between was a mish-mash of encouraging and awful from the home side. Liverpool took all three points today, and that's good, but there were a number of issues that will have to be addressed in order to get positive results in the next two weeks.
Brendan Rodgers continued a bit of tactical experimentation that we saw at times during preseason, putting Steven Gerrard in a double pivot, but with Jordan Henderson as a "wide" player in the attacking midfield band. With Lucas Leiva selected to partner Gerrard, that made for a very slow and deep pivot, leaving a large space between them and the attacking players that would eventually come to be a problem during the match.
Early on, though, Liverpool were excellent. Gerrard was able to ping balls up to Philippe Coutinho and Henderson, who in turn fed Sterling and Sturridge to create danger. It seemed like an effective combination early on, but as Southampton grew in to the match, Coutinho was having to drop deeper and deeper to pick up the ball from Gerrard and the fullbacks, and struggled more and more to find space to work with as a result.
That deep drop worked to Liverpool's favor in at least one moment, though. In the 23rd minute, a scrum for the ball around the right side of the center line saw Jordan Henderson skip away from traffic and launch a note-perfect crossfield ball that landed where only Raheem Sterling could get to it. The young attacker coolly separated from his defender, gathered the ball, and finished past Fraser Forster to put Liverpool ahead in impressive fashion.
Not long after that, though, things started to get wobbly. Instead of the go-for-the-throat push that we often saw last season, Liverpool looked to sit back and control the match after scoring, which allowed for Southampton to settle themselves in and start to pick at weaknesses in Liverpool's setup. Specifically, they found space in the middle of the pitch to work with, as Lucas and Gerrard were dropping back basically in line with the center backs when Liverpool were without the ball. Coutinho and Henderson tried to make up for it, but they could only drop so deep without being left way out of position when Liverpool regained possession.
The combination of Dusan Tadic and Steven Davis in particular caused a lot of problems thanks to that gap, with new man Javier Manquillo only able to do so much to contain Tadic's efforts down the right wing, especially with James Ward-Prowse frequently sweeping up from midfield behind the Serbian dangerman to cause more headaches. Fortunately for Liverpool, Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel were well up for the occasion, with Lovren in particular coming up big in the heart of defense again and again. What those two couldn't deal with was wrapped up soundly by Simon Mignolet in goal, and Liverpool were able to get to the half unscathed.
That wouldn't last long, though. Southampton came out of the half on the front foot, pressing hard and finding an equalizer eleven minutes in to the half. Tadic had drifted over to the right and combined with right back Nathaniel Clyne to create a goal made much easier by Lucas getting turned around as Clyne cut in to the box and Glen Johnson marking... uh... something. Clyne's finish was sublime, but the fact is he should never have been allowed to get in to a position to make the shot.
Liverpool rallied somewhat after the goal, but their shape still continued to create issues with the fluidity in possession and attack. Bringing on Joe Allen for Lucas was designed to help with that, but wound up further exposing the midfield instead. That was on display when substitute Shane Long was able to waltz through midfield and fired off a shot that Mignolet was only barely able to push in to the bottom of the crossbar in a diving, stretching effort that brought rapturous praise from the Kop.
Not long after, Rickie Lambert was introduced in front of his home town crowd and against his old team. The change saw Liverpool move back to something more like the diamond they had so much success with last season, and from there they were able to take control of the match, with Henderson moved back in to more of a midfield engine role, giving Gerrard the proper shield he'd been lacking during the match.
It wasn't long after that Liverpool found the winner; a free kick was flicked on in the box by Sterling, and Daniel Sturridge got his left boot on it and drove it home to send Anfield in to joyous delight. Lambert made his presence felt on the set piece, as his run off the near post was able to spread the defense out to give Sturridge the space he needed to get the job done.
From there it was simply time to hold on. Southampton pushed forward desperately, but were unable to find that final ball and finishing touch to equalize. In the end, it was the kind of hard-fought, ugly win we saw Liverpool take several of last year, but are rarely all that enjoyable to watch. Liverpool will have to be much, much better against Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the next two weeks, but a win is a win, and it's always the best way to start a new season.