Liverpool opened the 2014-15 campaign with a tight 2-1 victory over Southampton at Anfield on Sunday. The result is all that matters and the Reds are off and running, but the performance left a lot to be desired.
Raheem Sterling gave his side the lead in the first half but the dominance waned, and Southampton struck back though Nathaniel Clyne in the second period.
Daniel Sturridge tapped home to secure the win late just as the Saints looked more likely to score, with a collective wiping of the brow following his deft finish.
Formations and XIs
Liverpool ditched the diamond and went 4-2-3-1 for the opener, and we've seen flashes of it working tremendously well in pre-season.
Jordan Henderson lined up on the right wing, Philippe Coutinho as a No. 10 and Sterling off the left. Javier Manquillo and Dejan Lovren debuted in defence.
Southampton went 4-2-3-1 too, with James Ward-Prowse as a No. 10, Dusan Tadic on the left and Steven Davis on the right.
Shutting Out Coutinho
Southampton set up to play without the ball, focusing on limiting service from Liverpool's midfield into attack.
That meant setting up in a 4-2-3-1 but dropping into two clear, deep banks of four off the ball, squeezing Coutinho and Co. into slim gaps and preventing them from turning in space.
The Brazilian received just 21 passes, per FourFourTwo, in the first half and just two or three of them were in the "No. 10 space"—the area in which a classic No. 10 would operate and play.
Sterling, stuck on the wing, struggled to wriggle free when the area became congested, and even Daniel Sturridge failed to effectively pick on Maya Yoshida at centre-back.
The opening goal came from a moment of pure brilliance and small slice of fortune, too: Jordan Henderson's incredible pass for Sterling came after a 50/50 bounced his way, catching Southampton's defensive line—and in particlar Clyne—off-guard.
It certainly wasn't by Liverpool's design.
Southampton's response to going a goal down was to shuffle forward and try to force the issue a little more. Ward-Prowse had been pressing well as a No. 10, but Graziano Pelle hadn't; Ronald Koeman decided to push his side 10 yards further up and get more players involved in a higher press.
Davis and Tadic immediately began helping Ward-Prowse higher up, engaging Liverpool earlier, and the defensive line pushed up in response. Victor Wanyama and Morgan Schneiderlin were still able to lock up the middle because of their mobility and range, and Tadic was now being found higher up on the left as an out-ball.
Tadic quickly became the focus of the passing, as while Ward-Prowse offered little in the No. 10 space, his Serbian colleague got Javier Manquillo booked early and continued to torment him with his positioning.
All that was lacking was a final ball, with he and Pelle failing to link up either on the floor or via crosses.
The Saints' pressure took hold, and as soon as Tadic found the perfect touch, he was able to lay it off for Nathaniel Clyne to hammer home an equaliser in the second half.
Southampton continued to pressure, and it looked for all the world like the next goal would come for the visitors, so Brendan Rodgers shuffled his pack.
He first shifted from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 by swapping Lucas Leiva for Joe Allen. The switch allowed Henderson to move central and begin bombing forward in trademark fashion and gave Liverpool a more definitive wide presence.
After 13 minutes of it not yielding a goal, though, Rodgers switched again, introducing a 4-4-2 diamond by replacing Coutinho with new signing Rickie Lambert.
This was the golden ticket, and the Reds scored so quickly following the change that Southampton couldn't re-assess and re-jig. Lambert and Sturridge, playing as true strikers, matched the centre-backs one vs. one and Sterling came inside to the No. 10 position.
With both CBs tied up in duels and Sterling free to roam in the middle, the pitch opened up considerably; the goal, created by Sterling and finished by Sturridge, was a just reward for Rodgers' tinkering.
Southampton were outstanding, and had they represented a settled side and not one who'd been ripped apart this summer, they may well have won this game.
Just like last season, when Saints came to Anfield and trounced the Reds 1-0, Wanyama and Schneiderlin bossed the midfield and put the home side under a lot of physical pressure.
This was a key need over the summer, and Emre Can supposedly filled it, be he remained an unused substitute as the Reds' raw quality squeezed them through.