Tony Barrett on The Times very critical of BR & #LFC's performance - 'Tactical shambles exposes Brendan Rodgers’ lack of balance'
There can never be a good way for an unbeaten start to the season to come to an end and for leadership of the Barclays Premier League to be given up as a result. Yet it is hard to imagine that there is a worse way than the manner in which a tactically shambolic Liverpool surrendered both in a defeat by Southampton that felt possible, if not inevitable, from the moment that Brendan Rodgers’s team sheet arrived in the visiting team’s dressing room.
“It raised a couple of eyebrows,” Adam Lallana, whose corner set up Dejan Lovren’s decisive headed goal, said.
Diplomacy in victory is admirable but on this occasion it was not required as events had already determined that Rodgers’s team selection would be remembered for all the wrong reasons. After such a promising start to the campaign, this was a setback all of their own making.
The sight of four centre backs lining up across Liverpool’s defence was the greatest reason for the sense of pleasant surprise that spread through the Southampton squad before kick-off. With Kolo Touré and Mamadou Sakho, who had insisted after moving from Paris Saint-Germain to Anfield that he could not play at left back, stationed in the full-back positions, Southampton felt that their chances of preventing Liverpool from playing the ball out from the back had been given a great boost.
“They are a team like us who like to play out from the back and we just played a high-pressing game and felt we won the ball back in areas where we could affect the game,” the impressive Lallana said. “We wanted them to play it long.”
The approach worked a treat, just as it had done six months earlier when Southampton inflicted Liverpool’s previous defeat.
That Liverpool ended the game with only five players still in the same positions in which they started tells its own story, as does the total remodelling of their back four during the course of the 90 minutes.
Rodgers claimed that injuries left him with few options and with Glen Johnson and Aly Cissokho both injured and José Enrique and Martin Kelly considered short of the kind of fitness required to start, there was at least mitigation for the Liverpool manager.
There was also a feeling, though, that he had sacrificed the team shape unnecessarily and undermined his own game plan in the process. Had Rodgers wanted to play an orthodox back four, he could have done so as Andre Wisdom and Jonathan Flanagan, youngsters with Premier League experience, were both overlooked despite being available. Jordan Henderson can also operate at right back, while Raheem Sterling has recent experience in that position.
None of these options are ideal but they did exist, as did the possibility of starting Enrique, who did not seem restricted by the risk of injury after going on as a substitute.
With Iago Aspas still proving too much of a like-for-like replacement for Fabio Borini, who is on loan at Sunderland, it was not only in defence where Liverpool had problems. On Saturday, the squad’s lack of balance was made glaringly apparent. The decision to concentrate most of their resources on bolstering their defence during the transfer window, when Rodgers had spent most of the summer engaged an unsuccessful quest to recruit a No 10, was made to look particularly questionable.
Tellingly, Rodgers said that the decision was a club one. “I think from the club’s perspective we felt like we needed another centre back, and then there was another younger one who became available,” he said. “And that was something that the club wanted to do and protect that position for a number of years. We were on the lookout for a No 10 but were unable to get one. But that’s something we can’t worry so much about now. We just need to work over the next few months.”
None of which tactical intrigue should detract from Southampton’s first win at Anfield in a decade after a performance that highlighted their own growing maturity and ability to execute the strategies put in place by Mauricio Pochettino. The visiting team might not have started the game particularly well, but by the time that it ended they were in total control with Victor Wanyama, Luke Shaw, Lovrens and Lallana all particularly impressive.
“It’s credit to the staff, the players and everyone who works at the club,” Lallana said. “We worked hard on our game plan all week and we executed it brilliantly. The last ten or 15 minutes get a bit edgy when you’re winning. You tend to drop off a little bit deeper and people get tired. But I don’t remember them having a serious chance.”
How quickly Liverpool will recover from such an unexpected setback will determine whether they can remain competitive at the top end of the Premier League. But if there is one certainty, it is that Rodgers will not select four centre backs again in a hurry.