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On Moral Victories and What Comes Next

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Liverpool's hard-fought loss to Madrid may have held promise and positives, but it was as much an indictment of what came before. Now, the important question is what comes next.

Alex Livesey

In the end, Liverpool didn't win. In the end, any talk of moral victories has to face up to the reality of three points from four Champions League group stage matches and that Basel are now favourites to advance from the group. In the end, for all that a strong performance against the best side in Europe might be seen as a step in the right direction, it stands at least as strongly as an indictment of much of what has been seen this season from Liverpool.

Kolo Toure and Martin Skrtel weren't perfect, but against the most dangerous group of attacking players in football, they were more than serviceable. Liverpool's midfield, anchored by Lucas Leiva, looked more stable and solid than it has against the likes of Newcastle and West Ham and QPR. And Simon Mignolet, scapegoat for so many when it comes to the club's problems at the back, looked suddenly confident when placed behind this odds and ends defensive unit.

That it worked was a positive. That Liverpool looked at their best as a team defensively on the road against the toughest opponents they are likely to face all year is a positive. What it says about the £20M, Premier League experienced Dejan Lovren, a player who was brought in for his leadership qualities, is less positive. What it says about Steven Gerrard's ability, despite his talents, to be positionally responsible as a holding player for a side that isn't scoring, is less positive.

Gerrard is something of a known quality. As a deep-lying playmaker, his passing range can feed streaking attackers and help to fuel a deadly counter game. At 34 years of age, though, and never having been the most tactically considerate of players, his ability to operate as a screen for the defence is less than ideal for a player in the holding role. All of which isn't a problem if you're scoring more than two and a half goals per game in the league as Liverpool were last season.

So far this season, Liverpool are managing less than a goal and a half per game. Based on that, this season, Liverpool are a side that more often than not need to shut out their opposition if they are to take all three points. That adds up to a situation where Steven Gerrard's talents—and his weaknesses—end up a net negative at the position he's being asked to play. Measuring a holding player by his attacking influence works if the attack works; it doesn't when the attack falters.

Gerrard's chances of being able to excel in the role aren't being helped by Rodgers' team selection elsewhere, either. Despite persisting with Gerrard at the base of midfield, Rodgers has reverted to a single striker in attack—and has used as that striker a player who likes to drop deep. Rodgers has also resisted playing his two most creative attackers—Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho—at the same time. It's a conservative approach, one that means there's less for Gerrard to aim for.

It's a tactical mismatch that quite simply isn't working. The question now is whether what was seen against Madrid last night will actually sway Rodgers into tweaking his approach—either when it comes to getting more creative players out on the pitch for Gerrard to aim at or, if Rodgers isn't willing to do that, playing a more traditional holding player at the base of midfield and using Gerrard as an impact sub. Meanwhile, a little further back, there's an even bigger elephant in the room.

Gerrard's talents and weaknesses are a well worn topic, but Liverpool's sudden defensive competence last night was about more than adding a holding midfielder. It was also about the re-introduction of Kolo Toure. Much maligned and largely overlooked, Toure was at the very least competent when asked to shut down the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez, and Karim Benzema. It all makes for a pleasant story: a forgotten fringe player stepping up when it matters most.

On the other hand, it also makes for a rather more damning viewing of Dejan Lovren's performances for Liverpool so far this season. The 25-year-old Croatian was brought in to be Liverpool's defensive rock; the club's new Jamie Carragher. He cost £20M—an eye-watering fee for a centre half—and had spent a year playing in England with a side that played the sort of football Brendan Rodgers liked. He was vocal. He was a leader. He was the man to fix Liverpool's defence.

Only he hasn't. He cost a quarter more than Mario Balotelli, and while the controversial striker came with plenty of well known question marks, Lovren was presented to Liverpool fans as the sure thing—or at least as close to the sure thing as one can get in the transfer market. Yet Liverpool are on pace to concede as many goals this season as they did last, and Lovren has so far shown no ability to marshall the backline, appearing talented but absentminded—a cut-rate David Luiz.

It's frustrating because Lovren appears to have the tools to be an exceptional centre half—minus the positional and organizational qualities Liverpool paid a premium for and which were supposed to fix their defensive ills. It's frustrating when a fringe player like Kolo Toure, a player who is by any measure far less physically talented than Lovren at this stage in his career, can walk into the lineup after hardly playing a minute this season and look so much better than him against such a strong opponent.

It's further frustrating that the removal of Lovren, a player brought in at an exceptionally high cost for his leadership and organisational skills, leads to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet putting in his most assured performance of the season. The issue isn't just that Kolo Toure, against Real Madrid, had a better night at centre half than Lovren has at any time this season bar perhaps Liverpool's match against Tottenham. It's that the players around Toure looked better with him on the pitch.

So the important question now, as with Gerrard, is what happens next. Toure playing well against Madrid, as with Liverpool as a whole playing well albeit in a losing cause, can a positive. What it says about some of the players Rodgers has stubbornly stuck with this season is far less rosy. And a loss, in the end, is still a loss. Talk of moral victories and positive signs will mean nothing if Liverpool don't learn from last night's hard-fought defeat at the Bernabeu. So, Brendan, what comes next?