On Saturday, Liverpool dominated midtable side Hull City, but couldn't find the back of the net. Though they came close to stealing all three points with a late flurry, the match finished a scoreless draw. It was Liverpool's best performance of a nightmare week.
Rarely can you say a club was exposed in a victory over the league's worst team, but that's what happened the previous Sunday, when Liverpool traveled to Queens Park Rangers for what should have been a walkover. For much of the game, Liverpool had nothing for the lowly Londoners. But this is QPR we're talking about, who if nothing else always seize the opportunity to step on their own dick. QPR scored their second own goal of the game in the 95th minute, and Liverpool were able to get away with a 3-2 win.
Everyone was pissed, even with the win. Attention quickly turned to Liverpool's Wednesday clash at Anfield against Real Madrid, last year's Champions League winners and the current best team in the world.
"If we play like today," said Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard after escaping with the win against QPR, "there's no chance of beating them."
The match was over before it even started; Real Madrid were up by three goals at intermission. The Spaniards coasted in the second half, but could easily have run up six, or eight. Liverpool were outplayed, not because they were outcoached or outworked, but because they didn't have anything for Real Madrid. They were hapless going forward, and helpless in defense. They sucked.
At times like this, when a historically first-rate team is getting clowned on by everyone, it's easiest and most convenient to look for The Problem: a failed strategy, a position that could be improved, a single scapegoat that, if removed, could bring a team roaring back. The truth is less comforting: Liverpool's players aren't good enough, and they don't fit together well. It's important to point this out, to acknowledge that last Sunday, the Reds had no answer for Leroy Fer or Charlie fucking Austin, or that on Wednesday, Real Madrid won because they fielded 11 players better than any one on Liverpool.
Liverpool's travails this year more than anything validate the sheer ridiculousness of last year's campaign. The defense raised eyebrows—they conceded a whopping 50 Premier League goals, only eighth-best in the league—but they finished second behind Manchester City on points. They almost won the whole damn thing! This is because they were able to score 101 goals. This is because they had Luis Suárez.
Suárez was absolutely hilarious last year. After missing the first five games of the season for biting a dude, the Uruguayan spent the rest of the season playing out of his fucking mind, and ended the season with 31 goals and 12 assists in 33 appearances. He formed the most devastating striking partnership in the world with Daniel Sturridge, who finished the season with 21 goals—second in the league. Gerrard, largely diminished, dished out a league-leading 13 assists, as Liverpool were also devastating on set pieces.
Suárez was unstoppable in a nigh-literal sense, such an offensive juggernaut that he papered over an entire team's otherwise glaring weaknesses. There are other players—Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Marco Reus, Yaya Touré—who are not only dominant enough to do that, but play a specific position in a specific style that would allow them to create in a way that could elevate a whole side as much as Suárez did at Liverpool last year. But none of these other players have to.
Then Suárez went down to Brazil and bit another dude, and Barcelona bought the striker for an ungodly sum of money. He sat out for four months, and made his debut Saturday in El Clásico against Real Madrid. Barcelona lost, 3-1, but Suárez was the best player on the pitch for large swaths of the match, and it took him just over three minutes to make his mark. He found Neymar on a long diagonal pass, and watched as the Brazilian danced across the top of the box before slotting home the opening goal.
To compensate for the loss of their best player, Liverpool splurged in the summer and bought eight players to bolster the first team. It … hasn't really worked.
Through nine Premier League matches, Liverpool currently sit seventh place, even on points with fifth-place Arsenal and sixth-place Swansea but trailing in goal differential. More telling is that through nine matches, Liverpool have already conceded 12 goals. They're on pace to concede right around 50 goals once again.
A huge problem is that Liverpool haven't really found a back four combination that works. Last year, center backs Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger missed half the season to injury, left back José Enrique missed nearly all of it, and right back Glen Johnson missed portions, as well. This led to Liverpool having to rely on known scrubs like John Flanagan and Aly Cissokho, and the defense held up about as well as it was supposed to.
Fuck that, the Reds probably said this summer, and they brought in center back Dejan Lovren, holding midfield prospect Emre Can, and outside backs Javi Manquillo and Alberto Moreno to shore up the shaky, injury-prone defense.
Sakho is out injured again, which leaves Lovren and a sometimes-insufficient Martin Skrtel to hold down the center of defense. Choosing the outside backs is largely a practice of musical chairs. Rodgers started a different back four against QPR, Real Madrid, and Hull. This lack of consistency leads to a lack of stability. Johnson, Enrique, Manquillo, and Moreno have struggled to stop anybody at all. QPR and Real Madrid were both able to score after lofting jump balls in the box from wide positions that Liverpool couldn't clear. QPR and Real Madrid both scored on corners in the past week, and Liverpool have conceded seven goals from dead balls this season. They can't stop anybody anyway, but when their opponents have the chance to throw their center backs forward and run a play, it's a bloodbath. Right now, today, it appears Liverpool have wasted their money.
But perhaps one of the sadder development this year has been the play of Gerrard. There was a time, not too long ago, when the Reds captain was a god. He was an all-action midfielder who wreaked havoc through the midfield, broke up play, set up goals, and scored himself. He was a match-winner, one of the greatest players the Premier League has ever seen.
Now, though, Gerrard's 100 years old. He shows flashes of the player he once was, and will threaten to every time he touches until the day he dies. But his value now is largely as a dead ball specialist. Fourteen of his last 18 goals have come from penalties, and three more have come from direct free kicks. Still, Rodgers plays the legend in the heart of the midfield when utilizing the 4-3-3, or as a defensive midfielder, shielding the back four in the 4-2-3-1.
Gerrard can't run the show and dictate his team's tempo the way that he used to in the middle of the pitch, but usually he's not actively harming the team. His crime has been his anonymity. That's not the case, though, when he's played in a deeper role in the mold of Juventus's aging wizard, Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo plays no defense, ever, for any reason, but he is the greatest passer in the world. Pirlo also has cover because he features in the greatest midfield in the world. Playing alongside superheroes like Paul Pogba, Arturo Vidal, and even Claudio Marchisio affords Pirlo time to do magical things on offense and the freedom to chill on defense.
Gerrard doesn't have that privilege, because he plays with guys like Can, Jordan Henderson, and Joe Allen. Gerrard doesn't really get to conserve his energy, and doesn't appear to know what the fuck he's doing in this role. He's prone to mental lapses or random naïve moments like this one:
Gerrard was marking Cristiano Ronaldo, and when Ronaldo played the ball to James Rodríguez, the Englishman turned completely away from Ronaldo and moved toward Rodríguez without accounting for Ronaldo's return run of putting pressure on the ball. He took himself completely out of the play, and Rodríguez was able to dink a cute return ball over the top of Liverpool's soft defense and into the path of Ronaldo. It was criminal defending at almost any level.
It's not just that Liverpool can't defend. They couldn't defend last year, and at no point under manager Brendan Rodgers has their defense been anywhere near good enough to warrant a real claim to a title challenge. But they made up for that with overwhelming offense, and they don't have that now.
Liverpool have only scored 13 domestic goals through nine matches this year (six of which have come against QPR and in a 3-0 win over Spurs in August), and are only on pace to score 55 this year, 46 fewer than last season.
It's something we've seen before: losing a superstar like Luis Suárez leaves a crater in the squad that can't be filled with squad players. This Liverpool side is deeper, and more complete than any we've seen in recent years. Still, when watching them, the question remains: Who do they have?
So far this season, the brightest spot on Liverpool's roster has been 19-year-old attacking midfielder Raheem Sterling. He's as direct as he is flamboyant, and runs at defenders with a childlike exuberance and arrogance borne of not knowing any better. He's bursting with so much potential that watching him summons the good kind of hurt that bubbles up from deep in your chest, and barring tragedy, sorcery, or a richer, better team throwing money around, he appears to be Liverpool's future. He's dope.
Sterling is Liverpool's most creative force this season; he leads the team with three goals, and is second with two assists, just behind midfielder Jordan Henderson. The problem is that Sterling doesn't have a whole lot of help. In a perfect world, Sterling would be combining with Sturridge, but Sturridge is (kind of always) hurt, and hasn't played since August.
In his place is Balotelli, Suárez's prized replacement, and one of the biggest names to move in the summer transfer window. Balotelli's a great player, and at times, his technique and strength can be devastating. But Balotelli isn't Suarez. Suárez is creative, starting goals almost as often as he finishes them; Balotelli is a poacher. He's not as dynamic as Suárez, requires service, and exists more to finish off his team's moves. And that's fine! That's fine.
But Balotelli has only scored once in all competitions this year, and against Real Madrid last week, this happened:
That's indefensible, and useless performances like this one have often caused Balotelli to be subbed out for Liverpool's second summer striker signing, Rickie Lambert, who has been equally terrible, if at least more active.
Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana were all brought in to strengthen attacking midfield options, but they've disappointed, and they don't offer anything more than or different from Sterling or Brazilian starlet Philippe Coutinho. Liverpool's attacking depth and interchangeability is telling, because the Reds almost always seem to perform better later in matches. This is probably just because they have a lot of good players, and fresh good players are better than tired good players.
But even then, the Reds often look like they're thinking about being dangerous, passing and combining in front of their opponents' defense, but they can't penetrate. They don't have any match-winners.
It's speaks to a larger problem: that Liverpool are still built around a player they no longer have. Rodgers's sole plan last year—as it should have been—was to get the ball to Suárez, either flaring out to a sideline, or dropping back into the midfield, where he could pick up the ball, take on players, and score himself, or spring Sturridge behind the defense. Liverpool largely overwhelmed their opponents with their fast, open play, but they no longer have the players to do so. Sturridge is injured. Balotelli and Lambert are ineffectual. Most of Liverpool's midfielders are all solid, serviceable players, but there isn't a single match-winner among them. And so the Reds languish.
As it stands now, Liverpool are a deeply flawed team devoid of any stars who can consistently win them points right now, today. Sturridge, however, remains their best hope. He's tallied 32 goals in just 46 matches for Liverpool, and the one time he partnered with Mario Balotelli this season, Liverpool ripped Tottenham to shreds. Sturridge is tall, strong, blazingly fast, and a terrific finisher. He's very good, and he may be great.
However, the Reds' most critical spot remains the absence of Suárez. It's still difficult to quantify exactly how great Suárez was last year. He pulled defenses all over the field, and made Sturridge's and everyone else's job's that much easier. Sturridge can paper over some of those same cracks, but Liverpool's real failing was in thinking a one-man fix could be sustained. Those cracks are still there; Liverpool appear unable to stop or score on anybody, and more tragically, too stubborn to move on.
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