The Reds had been on an excellent run of form; winning four in a row in all competitions, three in a row in the Premier League and scoring goals for fun.
I have, on this site, often been accused of being over-positive (worse words but same meaning).
I don’t feel that I am; I simply feel that when things are going well, this should be pointed out – equally when things aren’t going well, this should be highlighted too.
This week my article will, for obvious reasons, be a little less positive and a little more questioning.
First things first; a trip to St. Mary’s was never going to be easy, let me just get that out there. Liverpool had only beaten Saints once away from home since 1998 and had lost three out of the last four at St. Mary’s by two clear goals, a pattern which was repeated on Saturday.
In an article written some weeks ago, I pinpointed the away game at Southampton (along with the visit to St James’s) as one of the Reds’ toughest remaining Premier League fixtures, and so it proved.
It wasn’t simply the Anfield club’s woeful record on the south coast (see away form at Pompey too) that provided cause for concern heading into the match. That was part of it of course, but the style of play employed by Southampton under Nigel Adkins, and more noticeably under Mauricio Pochettino, also set alarm bells ringing.
They press very high, very quickly and with lots of energy. They don’t allow teams time to settle on the ball and play from the back; they hustle, they harry, they play to their strengths and have players with the quality to hurt any opposition when they’re on the ball.
This is exactly the style of pressing play that Liverpool are particularly susceptible to and Saints, on their day, employ it better than most. Ferguson called them the best team to visit Old Trafford, Mancini’s side were taken apart by them and on Saturday, so were Liverpool.
Now, none of this is looking to provide any excuse for Liverpool and what transpired. The Reds were very, very poor. Mistakes were everywhere, from the management to the players.
This was a crass error and one that he shouldn’t have made. It’s been well documented that the Liverpool midfield lacks energy without Henderson, but with Lucas dropped/rested as well, there wasn’t a ball winner out there either. Saints not only found it easy to press the midfield and win the ball back but also, once they’d done that, it was plain sailing to zip it round and put pressure immediately on the Liverpool back four.
Rodgers has made mistakes with the midfield this season, however it seemed that he had sorted these problems. This was a regressive step. Resting Lucas is one thing, but replacing him with Allen and not Henderson, especially given Allen’s shoulder injury seemed mind bogglingly foolish.
Moving on to the back four where another horror show ensued in the absence of Jamie Carragher. As an onlooker, it is clear that the back four is lacking a good defensive coach and this, for me, is the number one signing that Brendan Rodgers needs to make.
The back four simply don’t know what they’re doing. Agger’s effort at playing Rickie Lambert offside was embarrassing, Johnson’s failure to challenge for the knock-down which set up the opener was baffling, and Skrtel’s 90 minutes were downright awful.
You can say what you like about Steve Clarke but he had the back four drilled last year; they knew what they were supposed to do. On Saturday without Carragher, ‘headless chickens’ is not an unfair comparison. Whether Carra can be shoe-horned in as the defensive coach for next season or not, I don’t know; I doubt it to be honest but, whatever happens, a top notch defensive coach is an urgent priority.
Nobody in Red had a particularly good game. Suarez and Gerrard had off-days, but then you can’t expect them to produce their best week-in week-out. The back four were poor to a man, Sturridge was busy but lacking in quality, the midfield was overrun; in fact the only two players to emerge with any kind of credit were Brad Jones – without whom it could’ve been worse – and Coutinho, who was a threat and scored a decent goal.
It was a bad day at the office and everybody, from the manager down, has to take some responsibility. Sometimes it happens and, as long as the side bounces back, it’s not the end of the world. It’s disappointing because, as I mentioned in the first paragraph, the team was on a nice little run, but all is not lost.
Before Saturday there were lots of player comments in the press about pushing for European football (be it Champions or Europa League) and, for me, this goal is not out of reach despite this latest setback.
However, it seems that every time the players begin to open their mouths to talk about European aims they quickly plug the gaps with their feet faster than the words can escape.
It would be much nicer, as a fan, if the players would stop talking and simply go out and make it happen. Talk is cheap and we are Liverpool FC.
You can catch up with Neil on Twitter @Neil1980 and on his blog http://itsallinthegameblog.wordpress.com/