The post-match fallout from Liverpool's 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday has seen focus fall on Mario Balotelli's performance, half-time substitution and swapping of shirts with Pepe.
This, though, as BBC Sports' Phil McNulty rightly points out, is a sideshow to the actual problems Brendan Rodgers' side have at present. Indeed, The Times' Oliver Kay asserts that it's the least of the Liverpool boss' problems:
Swapping shirts at half-time is worthy of derision, but it's the least of the problems where Balotelli is concerned.— Oliver Kay (@OliverKayTimes) October 22, 2014
Something that Spanish football correspondent Guillem Balague agrees with:
The percentage of analysis/talk abt last night's Anfield game devoted 2 Balotelli is ridiculous. Minor issue compared 2 problems of the side— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) October 23, 2014
Rather than discussing the more glaring issues, Rodgers' post-match criticism of Balotelli has drawn the focus away from a Liverpool defence that has one clean sheet in its last 18 games—despite Rodgers having spent over £60 million on new defenders and a goalkeeper in the last 15 months.
Simon Mignolet can't catch a cold, Dejan Lovren—who cost £4 million more than Balotelli and was Rodgers' first-choice centre-back signing—can't lead a boyscout troop, and Rickie Lambert is proving to be an expensive club mascot.
Liverpool lack a leader in defence, something Rodgers proclaimed Lovren would be, while ahead of the calamitous centre-backs they lack any steel in midfield. Steven Gerrard is forced to play every game, despite his increasing years and decreasing influence.
The finger of blame for these issues though can only be pointed at Rodgers.
Wanted: Robust Midfielder
When Rodgers joined the club in summer 2012, many supporters could see the positions that needed strengthening: Up front and a holding midfielder—along with the age-old issue of left-back—were the most notable.
Joe Allen arrived and began as the pivot playing in the midfield three, doing well in an unfamiliar role. Nuri Sahin also arrived, on loan from Real Madrid, a player who had impressed in a deep midfield role for Borussia Dortmund, but was then never played there before his loan was cut short.
Rodgers instead had placed his trust in Lucas Leiva. Unfortunately, the pre-injury Lucas no longer exists and the Brazilian is far from a solid-enough option as the anchor man in Liverpool's midfield. These last two games haven't even seen him in the squad (instead he's posting Instagram photos of family days on matchdays).
Then came the reincarnation of Gerrard as the holding player. A move that worked expertly last season but always looked like being a temporary solution rather than a long-term one. Most observers anticipated a player coming in to play the role this summer, especially given the likelihood of Gerrard being able to perform at his best there while playing three games in a week. This isn't hindsight, it was glaringly obvious, basic common sense.
None arrived. Liverpool were barely linked with one. Rodgers seemingly didn't think he needed one. A huge oversight.
Think of any successful Liverpool European side and there's always been a tough, robust midfielder at the heart of the side. We're talking Jimmy Case, Terry McDermott, Graeme Souness through to Dietmar Hamann and Javier Mascherano in more recent times.
Mascherano is a player who Liverpool should have been targeting back in 2012 when he was out of favour at Barcelona and when used as a centre-back. He was a proven player, a winner, experienced. Even this summer, it's a player such as him who Rodgers should have been seeking. Signing potential is admirable but Liverpool need a proven player with a winning mentality to help the youngsters in the squad.
We're talking about a player who protects the back four, is prepared to do the so-called dirty work, take a foul or a booking for the good of the team, get in the face of opponents and drive those around him to do likewise.
It can be noted that Luis Suarez was effectively this for Liverpool last season, of course in a more advanced role. The work he did from a forward position in pressing midfielders from behind, harassing centre-backs and giving them no time to play, cannot be understated.
Where was any of this against Real Madrid on Wednesday? Nowhere.
Liverpool started well, Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen pressed the Madrid midfield and defence and the side had a good tempo to it. Philippe Coutinho sat at the tip of the midfield diamond as Rodgers finally moved away from the flat 4-2-3-1 shape we've seen in recent weeks.
But once the goal arrived after 23 minutes, Liverpool soon dropped into a 4-5-1 shape with Coutinho and Raheem Sterling wide. It meant Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Isco had the whole of Anfield's centre circle to dominate play from.
Liverpool are too soft, lacking a leader at the back and lacking physical presence in midfield. While Rodgers was signing Lovren from Southampton to lead his defence, he should have been targeting Morgan Schneiderlin to provide protection for his back four.