x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A switch in defensive personnel backfires on Liverpool

Starting with four specialist centre-backs fails to stem Southampton, writes Richard Jolly, but at least Rodgers can now start to think about Suarez spearheading attack with Uruguayan's 10-match suspension now completed.

Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, second left, wheels away in celebration after proving what proved to be the decisive goal in yesterday’s fixture against previously unbeaten Liverpool. Phil Noble / Reuters
Southampton’s Dejan Lovren, second left, wheels away in celebration after proving what proved to be the decisive goal in yesterday’s fixture against previously unbeaten Liverpool. Phil Noble / Reuters

Perhaps it was just going too smoothly for Liverpool. Top of the league, with a striker who could not stop scoring and an enviable record of keeping clean sheets, there was the sense their troubles were finally confined to the past. Instead, they suffered a defeat that had all the hallmarks of many a setback at Anfield in recent seasons.

From the inability to defeat supposedly lesser opponents on home turf to a strange team selection, from an over-reliance on one player in attack to some incoherent, unconvincing defending, this was an unwanted sequel to a hackneyed tale.

As Southampton became the first team to defeat Liverpool since the Saints themselves in March, a deserved triumph had dispiriting undertones for Brendan Rodgers. His sole crumb of comfort came not from the performance, but in the knowledge that Luis Suarez is now available again. Liverpool have flourished during the striker’s 10-game suspension, suggesting his importance has been exaggerated, but, at the last, a side shorn of a spark sorely missed the irrepressible Uruguayan.

As Suarez watched from an executive box, it was a match to enhance the reputations of the missing.

Injuries deprived Rodgers of both Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho; their direct deputies were two of his eight summer signings – an out-of-position Kolo Toure and an out-of-sorts Iago Aspas – and neither could compensate for the absence of the regulars.

Indeed, minus Suarez and Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge was the only starter of a potentially fearsome front three. The Englishman was aiming to become only the third player to score in the opening five games of a Premier League season; instead Jose Antonio Reyes and Wayne Rooney remain the only members of that select club.

Sturridge was starved of service, and when he dropped deeper to provide Raheem Sterling with a chance to equalise, the substitute’s touch let him down. When his colleagues were more accurate, they encountered an obstacle in the shape of Artur Boruc.

“He was great,” said the Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Liverpool have fond memories of Polish goalkeepers, ever since Jerzy Dudek’s penalty shoot-out heroics against AC Milan helped win them their fifth European Cup. Not yesterday; Boruc twice brilliantly clawed away free kicks from Steven Gerrard, sandwiching a similarly vital stop from Victor Moses. The only other alarm for Southampton was when Dejan Lovren appeared to trip Sturridge just inside the penalty area.

Thereafter, Lovren garnished his otherwise flawless performance by heading the winner.

For Liverpool, it was all the more damning because of the height of their defence and the needless manner of it. They displayed a capacity to create difficulties for themselves with failed attempts to play out from the back. It could have brought Adam Lallana a goal minutes before Lovren did score, with the crucial corner conceded after a mix-up between Toure and Martin Skrtel. Then Lovren shook off Daniel Agger to convert Lallana’s corner for his first goal for Southampton since his £9 million (Dh53m) move from Lyon.

Indeed, it was a tale of two expensive central defenders. In the short term, the arrival of the costliest defender in Liverpool’s history has created more problems than it has solved.

Agger’s return to fitness, Rodgers’s understandable reluctance to drop the £16m Mamadou Sakho and the manager’s concern about Jose Enrique’s knee meant the Spaniard was a substitute, the newcomer moved to the left and Liverpool started with four specialist centre-backs.

Yet with Sakho unconvincing on his forays forward and attacking full-backs having an importance in Rodgers’s gameplan, there was a predictability about the switch backfiring. Enrique was introduced before an hour was up.

By then, however, Southampton were firmly in the ascendancy and could have scored more. Yet while Simon Mignolet was at his most acrobatic to deny first Luke Shaw and then Steven Davis, Liverpool were at their most anaemic.