Liverpool came away from today's encounter with League champions Manchester City somewhat disappointed with the result, though encouraged by the overall performance. There were two huge defensive errors leading to both City goals, but many positives on the day as well.
The following is a discussion of some of day's more worrisome events, but also some of the highlights, and why Liverpool fans should or shouldn't be too concerned going forward.
Last season Liverpool were third best in the League in conceding a total of 40 goals, but 25 of those came after the interval. Already this season, the Reds have shipped a total of five goals in just two matches, and most worryingly, four of those goals have come in the second half.
No Premier League manager will downplay the importance of being defensively stout, but could it be that Rodgers' shift in philosophy from hoofing it long to playing it out the back is part of the reason for dodgy defending?
It would certainly be easy to say that with a focus on overhauling the offensive play of the team, there has been some lack of focus or attention paid to the defense. That appears not to be the case, but still there is some minor cause for concern attendant to the shift in philosophy.
Of the five goals conceded thus far, two are directly attributable to Rodgers' preferred playing style. Last week Martin Skrtel was caught in possession inside his own penalty area by Shane Long, and his inadvertent trip on the West Brom player resulted in a penalty, converted by Peter Odemwingie.
On Sunday, his reluctance to simply hoof the ball long, even when under pressure, resulted in the already-discussed back pass to Reina, intercepted and converted by Carlos Tévez.
The other three goals came via a Zoltan Gera cracker from distance, a close-range header by Romelu Lukaku, and a defensive mishap in which Pepe Reina and Martin Kelly both played a part, and neither related in any way to Rodgers' philosophy.
Whatever the cause, the defense has conceded a shockingly high number of goals after just two games. Granted, the figures are skewed by the 3-0 drubbing at West Brom (when, it should be noted, they played a significant portion of it down a man), undoubtedly, there remains much work needed to be done in tightening up the overall defensive performance.
Last week it was the unsteady play of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger that was a concern; this week marked an improvement over the performance against West Brom, but still leaves a lot to be desired.
The obvious talking point is Martin Skrtel’s brain cramp of a back pass to Pepe Reina, as naïve a decision as you would ever see the Slovakian make. In isolation, it was a very poor decision, one that stands out in what was overall a decent performance.
Looking at the bigger picture, there seems little need for concern with regards to Skrtel. He reads the game well and his positioning is generally superb. That said, the gaffe aside, he was guilty of playing too tight to Balotelli on a couple of occasions today.
Similar errors saw him slip as he attempted to press Shane Long last week, necessitating Agger’s intervention and foul, resulting in the Dane’s sending off. One such play today resulted in him having to haul down (a very compliant) Balotelli, earning an early warning by the referee.
Coates was guilty of the same, but this time on Edin Džeko, allowing the Bosnian to turn him far too easily and get a shot off on goal. Fortunately, he skewed it high and wide and never threatened Reina.
There was also a moment when he was caught in possession by Balotelli just outside the box. The play was eerily reminiscent of the Skrtel “foul” on Shane Long, resulting in the second penalty. Both times the player was caught in possession in his own box.
Along with the Skrtel back pass, this suggests that the central defensive players (at least) are still adjusting to having to play the ball out of the back, rather than just kick it long.
A solution may be to require the defensive midfielders and wing players to present themselves quicker as outlets rather than having the defenders linger in possession.
Last season, the final position of the top ten Premier League clubs were almost in direct correlation to their ability to accurately shoot on target. Not quite earth-shattering, but an interesting, if anecdotal suggestion that the more often you hit the target, the more likely your chances of success.
Last season, Liverpool finished sixth in that category, a somewhat misleading figure, given that in many instances the team hit the woodwork without even challenging the opposing goalkeeper.
This season, the Reds have gotten off to an even worse start with 16.5 shots in two games, but managing to turn only 2.5 of those on target, a stat borne out by only two goals from two matches, both of which coming from set pieces.
“Who cares whether the goals come from set pieces or not?” you ask. Well we should. While it is a potent part of any team’s offensive game plan to capitalize on set-piece opportunities, the bulk of scoring chances arise from open play, and in those situations Liverpool have been poor.
This season the club ranks 16th in the League in shooting accuracy, and are one of five teams yet to score from open play. The Liverpool tandem of Luis Suarez and Fabio Borini have been the chief culprits this season, failing to connect on several opportunities.
Still, Liverpool are only two games into the campaign and there remains plenty time for them to improve, and improve they must if they are to challenge seriously for a top four spot this season.
There is little question that Liverpool are a deeper, more talented club today than they were at season’s end three months ago. The departure of attacking players such as Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and Maxi Rodriguez has created room on the roster for players such as Oussama Assaidi, Nuri Sahin and Raheem Sterling.
Assaidi and Sahin have yet to suit up for the Reds and so one might argue that it’s premature to make any substantive pronouncements regarding their quality. Fair enough, but there’s no denying that the skillset they bring into the team represents an upgrade over the departed players.
There certainly can be no argument over the range of attacking options available on the wings, and exemplified by Sterling’s performance today (more on that in a minute). No argument either that the continued development of Jonjo Shelvey represents an upgrade over the industrious-but-limited Jay Spearing.
Shelvey stepped in admirably for the injured Lucas today, and while his positional awareness and defensive tenacity remain works in progress, his ability to assist on offense by bringing the ball out the back and at times, lead the attack is a welcomed asset to a midfield that is being asked to be more creative in Rodgers' system.
Here the addition of Joe Allen is worth mentioning as he adds both depth and quality to the Liverpool middle, and if today’s performance is any indication, then Liverpool just might have gone some ways in replacing departed maestro, Xabi Alonso.
Defensively, Sebastian Coates has shown marked improvement since his debut a year ago against Tottenham, and Martin Kelly’s emergence continues, while Glen Johnson’s versatility to play either fullback position brings an element of depth and flexibility to the squad.
Sterling completely vindicated his manager’s faith in him today and Rodgers could not have been any more effusive in his praise for the young player, telling the BBC,
"For a 17-year-old lad [Sterling] coming in to play against the champions, I thought his performance was fantastic. It was an easy decision to pick him."
One needs to caution against letting expectations for the young player get out of hand, as his success came at the expense of an aging Kolo Touré, who hasn’t seen much action since his return from suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance.
The element of surprise too will be lost against any future opponents, who one can reasonably expect to be better prepared for his pace, which at this point remains his favorite asset.
He can be predictable at times in cutting inside onto his right foot (see his wonder strike vs. Bayern Leverkusen above), but one can reasonable expect him to add variety to his game as he matures.
Maturity is the key word. He is still very much slight of frame and will need to get stronger on the ball. Perhaps there also needs to be a bit of emotional maturity as well, as indicated by a minor training-ground incident, causing his manager to upbraid him.
Nonetheless, his tireless running today allowed him to constantly pressure Touré on the attack, while tracking back to hector James Milner into anonymity. It is the type of two-way pressure that is required by Rodgers' high pressing style, and Sterling certainly seems to be cast for the role.
“Our idea is to pass teams to a standstill so they can no longer come after you. Eventually you wear them down.” - Liverpool Manager, Brendan Rodgers
The video above demonstrates the organization of the defense in Rodgers' short-passing system. I would only do a disservice to the phenomenal job done by the professionals at EPL Index, were I to attempt an explanation, but it's well worth a look at their exposition of the Barcelona/Rodgers system.
Looking at the totality of the performance against Manchester City, it is difficult for the Anfield faithful to not take heart. Joe Allen stepped into the holding midfield role and wonderfully orchestrated the attack with his decisive passing.
Liverpool saw just 37 percent of possession after the first 25 minutes, improved to 43 percent after 75 minutes, and completely dominated the final 15 minutes to finish with 49 percent possession for the game.
This suggests that it took a while for the players to recognize what City was doing, and to develop a rhythm and flow to their play, by increasing their passing efficiency the more time went on.
As noted by Michael Cox of The Guardian, Liverpool's ability to pass the ball out from the back gave them control of the game. It forced City to engage them further up the pitch than they would have liked, creating space for Liverpool's forwards to attack.
Undoubtedly, there will be growing pains as some players learn to play with the ball at their feet, but on the strength of today’s performance, there are positive indications of Rodgers' system coming together.
Once the new players have been integrated into the system, one can expect an even greater degree of dynamism to the Liverpool attack, with today offering but a preview of things to come.