Liverpool won. In the end it's that rather than any complaint or criticism that is the most important takeaway from Sunday's match against Stoke. Yet it cannot be wholly ignored that the win was largely dependent on the heroics of Luis Suarez and, following his introduction in the second half, Daniel Sturridge. It cannot be ignored that while Liverpool won, Stoke scored three goals against a shaky backline and largely ineffective midfield. Thanks to Suarez and Sturridge, Liverpool still won, but it wasn't the kind of performance one can imagine securing points against a side closer to the top of the table.
The defensive struggles Liverpool has been mired in of late are something of a tired subject, with Glen Johnson's nosediving form headlining the list of concerns for most. That the midfield might have been even weaker than the defence this time out, though, was a new wrinkle. And while Brendan Rodgers can say anything he wants for public consumption, can make all the positive noises he cares to about believing Steven Gerrard is suited to play as a defensive midfielder, the reality is that the manager set up his midfield against Stoke in a way that accentuated the weaknesses of each of his midfielders.
That decision to switch Gerrard and Liverpool's only natural defensive midfielder seemed to do no favours to either the captain or Lucas Leiva, while that Jordan Henderson—the club's best midfielder over the past two months—had his worst game in at least two months can at least in part be attributed to the poor performances around him. With Gerrard and Lucas asked to take on roles that seemed at times to work against their skill sets and natural tendencies, Henderson was left to pick up the slack and, not surprisingly, proved to not be up to the task of covering for the midfield's two misfiring members.
It hardly helped the defence, either, that the midfield in front of them was so thoroughly dysfunctional. Johnson and, to a lesser extent, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure all deserve their share of the blame for Liverpool's defensive inadequacies on Sunday, but Rodgers and Liverpool went into the match knowing it was a defence that had struggled in recent weeks, and rather than setting up to help protect them the decision to swap Lucas and Gerrard's roles only left them more exposed. It was key to Stoke drawing level just before the half and later clawing back another after Liverpool had reestablished their lead.
Gerrard's frequent turnovers were especially concerning, often coming when Liverpool's fullbacks had already advanced up the pitch and the captain was one of the three deepest players alongside Skrtel and Toure. A 75.9% pass completion rate with 24.1% of his passes long balls might not have been an issue had Gerrard been further up the pitch with defensive cover for when he inevitably turned the ball over. However, with six and seven players often pushed past him up the pitch, his reckless pass selection only confirmed just how poor a fit Gerrard is to play the role Rodgers asked him to.
One can't fault Gerrard, who was asked to take on a role few would think ideal for him. Further, he did show an often commendable work-rate and made some nice tackles—albeit ones often made necessary by his tendency to wander, leaving space for Stoke to attack into and forcing him into the kind of last-ditch tackle attempts a disciplined holding player would never have had to make. That lack of positional discipline and a tendency to look for the killer ball are key to the all-action heroics Gerrard has built a legacy on, and moved 10-15 yards up the pitch the negatives of that approach are at least much decreased while leaving the positive potential.
Dropped deeper than almost all of his teammates on Sunday it wasn't an approach that did his fellow midfielders or the shaky defence behind them any good. Removed from any kind of positional context, Gerrard may have had a good game. As a defensive midfielder tasked with regularly being one of the three deepest Liverpool players on the pitch and screening the backline, it left a great deal to be desired. It made things harder for a struggling defence, and it left Lucas looking lost pushed into the attacking third—an area in which Gerrard could have done far more damage had it been him there instead.
Certainly Liverpool won, and three points never make for a bad result, but a similarly dysfunctional midfield over the next two months against the likes of Everton, Arsenal, Swansea, and Manchester United is unlikely to yield such positive results. Rodgers and Liverpool need to treat Stoke as a case of getting away with a bizarre tactical choice rather than as validation for that choice. Other than in the performances of Suarez and Sturridge, Liverpool were lucky. If they want to be assured of a top four finish and to perhaps even challenge for more, they cannot allow that good fortune to obscure the fact that for the most part they weren't very good.