Last year, with no European football to contend with, Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool rarely had to worry about fixture congestion. This season, with a midfield missing two key options through injury, the additional matches are already piling up, and they don't stop any time soon, with four more matches over the next two weeks before another international break.
"It's something we've got to get used to because we've got plenty more Champions League games," said the manager when asked about how his side is coping with the congested early fixture list. "The group has come a long way in the last couple of years and in particular last year, but there's always a big expectancy when you play for Liverpool anyway."
Certainly the squad didn't perform to expectations against West Ham on Saturday, though Rodgers has to take much of the blame for starting out the match with a underwhelming midfield that West Ham were able to exploit too easily. Shifting to three at the back before halftime took some pressure off a tired set of players, but by then Liverpool had already conceded twice.
In particular, Steven Gerrard appeared unable to cope in the single-pivot, being thoroughly and embarrassingly outplayed by Liverpool castoff Stewart Downing. Gerrard in the single-pivot can just about work when he's on his game and Liverpool's attack is clicking. When he's clearly exhausted and those around him also aren't at their best, it's a recipe for dissaster.
And on Saturday, it was certainly a disaster, in large part due to Rodgers' decision to start Gerrard three times in a week. The captain may still be willing and eager to play every minute for Liverpool, but he clearly isn't able to do so, and one would be hard pressed to think of any other 34-year-old being started three times in a week for a side hoping to challenge for silverware.
It's a situation where a manager has to be strong and, no matter if he's dealing with a local hero and club icon or not, be willing to do what's best for the club—and the player. Injuries may have limited his options, but Rodgers was still able to bring on Adam Lallana on at the half for Lucas Leiva, who while underhwelming had had a better half and looked less exhausted than Gerrard.
Keeping Gerrard on, asking a 34-year-old player who was clearly spent early in the first half to play a third full 90 in a week, only hurt Liverpool's chances. It also did no favours to Gerrard, who ended the day Liverpool's worst performer and so came in for added criticism. That fixture congestion, though, means little time to dwell on past mistakes, and tomorrow Liverpool go again.
"The level that is expected of us as a group and individual players has grown," Rodgers added. "We have to be able to cope with that and, at the minute, we're not—it's as simple as that. But this is a very honest group that will fight and work every day in order to get that concentration and focus back again."
Clearly this Liverpool side isn't the well-oiled machine of last season. Not yet at least. But as important as getting back their focus might be for the players to deal with the added pressures of being back in Europe, just as important will be Rodgers showing he's capable of adjusting to the pressures of Europe and doing something he was loathe to last season: rotate his squad and rest key starters.
That has to start with Gerrard. The captain may still have a lot to give to Liverpool, but he's 34 years old, and as Rodgers used him over the past week he not only hurt Liverpool's chances to win but also did a disservice to a club legend who is no longer physically able to play every minute of every match.