We've seen this movie far too many times over the past five seasons -- a Liverpool team sputtering down the stretch as it realizes that the top four is unattainable, its sad final breaths puttering out meagerly against the Hulls, Stokes, West Broms, and Villas of the world. Fans trying to conjure up disgust but only discovering numbness. After a brief respite last season, Liverpool Football Club appears lost once more.
There's not much that can encapsulate the current situation better than a 1-0 loss to Hull City that had Emre Can once again positioned at right back, Mario Balotelli isolated as lone striker, and an astonishing lack of width and fluidity in the attack. And what better moment to summarize the state of the team than a Michael Dawson headed goal with no one in red positioned on the same planet as him?
In the 7th minute Hull City signaled their intent with a cross into the box that Dame N'Doye, who was essentially unmarked, headed on target. As they have for large parts of this season, Liverpool could only respond with a couple of uninspiring half chances that included a Philippe Coutinho volley and an inventive back heel attempt from Balotelli.
Can, who looked pretty awful playing in a wide defensive position that is completely unnatural for him, allowed Robbie Brady to run right by him to the byline in the 27th minute, and Brady's ensuing cross produced a wild scramble in front of the net that Simon Mignolet just barely managed to deal with.
Ten minutes later Michael Dawson celebrated his goal, fans in the KC lost their minds, and the faces of the Liverpool players became a projection of the fan base's numbness.
It was happening again, and worse, Brendan Rodgers failed to make any halftime changes to a tactical set up that plainly wasn't working. In the second half it was more of the same -- listless possession existing almost exclusively in the middle of the pitch where Hull City had clogged up every bit of space with compact banks of defenders. No width and little invention.
Jordan Henderson nearly pulled a goal from thin air when he caught hold of a left-footed half volley in the 63rd minute to challenge Steve Harper, but the goalkeeper managed to tip the shot around the post. Besides that it was mostly timid long shots and frustrating attacking breakdowns for the rest of the match.
Rodgers eventually brought on Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and Lazar Markovic, but the moves did little to improve Liverpool's attack. That the final whistle felt more like an act of mercy than anything else helps shed light on the dullness of the visitors' forward movements over the final 20 minutes.
With this defeat Liverpool are now unquestionably super duper officially out of top four contention, and even making the Europa League will be a dogfight. It's hard to pin the result on one issue though, and perhaps that's what makes it so frustrating. One can reasonably pick apart Rodgers' managerial decisions -- Can at right back, Balotelli up top, etc. -- but in all honesty was there any team that he could have picked today that would have confidently beaten Hull? It's a scary thought with an unclear answer.
There might not be much hope left in the season, but through experimentation with younger players and decision making in terms which players belong in the team going forward, progress can be made. There is talent in this team -- just a year ago Liverpool were in the middle of a tense title race. The hope is that Rodgers can maximize that talent better, and build around his key pieces with the right players before they decide to leave. And if he can't do that soon, other options must be considered.