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Stoke City 0 Liverpool 1 (Aug 10 2015)

Report by
Dave Usher

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If a week is a long time in football then the eleven of them that the players have endured since “the 6-1” must have seemed like a lifetime. This result doesn’t erase that humiliation from memory but it does provide some closure for players, fans and especially the manager. It wasn’t a great performance, not from a purist standpoint anyway, and we didn’t really start to play until the arrival of Emre Can after an hour, but from a defensive and organisational perspective there was a lot to be pleased with.


Over the next few weeks I’m sure we’ll play better in attack as this was disjointed at best and utterly wretched at worst. Did we even manage a shot in the first half? I can’t think of any. The first effort on goal I can remember came from Lovren of all people after the break.


Obviously all eyes were on Benteke and while he didn’t do much I actually thought he looked in decent nick and showed some good touches, but the service to him was curious to say the least. I haven’t seen us hit so many alehouse balls since Andy Carroll was here, it was quite surprising. There were occasions when Mignolet was dribbling up the pitch and kicking long like Dave Beasant in his Wimbledon days!


I suppose it’s only natural there will be some teething problems while we integrate the big fella into the side, and I suspect that this was more a result of how we were set up than any deliberate change in style. The 4-2-3-1 worked well in terms of closing off space and making us difficult to play through, but it killed Milner and Henderson as any kind of attacking threat. That wouldn’t have been a problem if the four ahead of them (more specifically three behind Benteke) were doing anything, but they just never got going as they spent the first hour putting out fires in their own half.


Hitting it long to Benteke now and again is a decent ploy, but theres no point when none of the support players are close enough to him to allow him to do anything. He was far too isolated, especially for the first hour until Brendan eventually changed it.


The team selection was understandable for the most part (though a case can be made for Sakho and for a holding midfielder). Lallana and Ibe deserved to start based on how they’d done in pre-season. It’s debatable whether they’ll keep their places after this though. Lallana especially just never got into the game. He played his way into the side over four or five pre-season games but he may have played himself out of it after just 45 minutes.


I said to my arl fella about 15 minutes in that if there was one thing that was certain about this game, it was that Lallana would be subbed after an hour. It was 61 minutes as it turned out, but close enough. He was invisible, as he was for much of last season when marooned out on the left. It doesn’t work does it? He needs to be more central.


Still, for all our attacking failings at least we were comfortable at the back. Stoke had only one decent chance in the first half but thankfully it fell to Glen Johnson. For one horrible moment he seemed certain to score but then he checked back onto his left foot and… well we know better than anybody how that usually ends. That miss aside he played very well and clearly had a point to prove. What’s with the number eight shirt though, who the hell does he think he is? There’s something not right about full backs wearing numbers like that.


I expect Brendan was happy at half time despite us offering no real goal threat. After what happened last season the first priority will have been not to give anything away, especially early on as that would not only have brought horrible memories back for our players, it would have given Stoke the smell of blood. By playing it cagey he allowed us to slowly play our way into the game, and the change he made on the hour definitely shifted the flow of the game.


It’s going to be interesting to see what system we play over the next few weeks. Defensively the 4-2-3-1 was fine but can we really afford another attacking display like that? The switch to 4-3-3 just made a massive difference and everyone looked more comfortable. It was as much about the system as the personnel I’d say, although both Can and Firmino played well.


Within a minute or two of Can’s arrival, Henderson was bursting forward and Milner was also in the box in the same attack. The presence of that third midfielder freed them up to get much more involved, and Milner especially really came into his own in the closing stages. Firmino looks to have something about him, he’s no shrinking violet that’s for sure, and presumably he’ll be ready to start by the time we play our next game.


He came on for Ibe who had not really gotten any change out of the Stoke left back. In fairness he often had three and sometimes even four players surrounding him when in possession and Stoke clearly knew all about the danger he posed.


Coutinho hadn’t had the best of games either. He’d shown some nice little touches here and there but they’d amounted to nothing, and one speculative volley he blasted into orbit just smacked of utter frustration. He was doing my head in to be honest and I would have had no complaints if he’d been taken off. That’s what was about to happen before he turned away from Sidwell in midfield, carried it forward a few strides and then lashed one into the top corner. Incredible strike, reminiscent of what we saw from him a few times last season.


Poor Danny Ings was stripped and ready to come on, but when the goal went in it was obviously a case of “yeah sit down son, you’ll have to wait until next week”. Coutinho often flatters to deceive away from home and this was another of those occasions until he produced that shot. Happy to see him do it, but if he does it too often he might grab the attention of Barca or Real, so pace yourself Philippe. We need you to be good, but not TOO good.


It was a welcome bonus to keep a clean sheet though and with that in mind, three players probably deserve singling out for special mention. Clyne was really solid and quietly effective. The kind of performance we’ll come to get used to from him I think. He’s going to be one of those Mr Dependable types, who just gets the job done and gives you a 7.5 out of 10 most weeks.


Gomez on the other side did ok. Nothing special and he had a difficult moment or two, but given the difficulty of the occasion, opposition and his direct opponent, this was an encouraging start for him. Walters tried all the tricks in the book to make life awkward for Gomez, and won a few free-kicks with his wily old pro tactics, but generally he wasn’t really a factor in the game


Finally Lovren. He’s one of the most unpopular players I can remember in years, it feels like nobody wants him in the team yet I still feel like there’s a player in there. I haven’t written him off yet although I’m not sure why. I don’t know what it is, but when I look at him I just think “he should be frigging boss him”. He’s not, I know that, but it feels like he should be. He looks the part with his size and athleticism, he just has a commanding presence, especially in the air. Then you see him get absolutely ruined by some jabroni like Bolasie at Palace and you can’t help but have massive doubts about him.


I’m like virtually everyone else, I prefer Sakho too. Thing is, I can understand why Brendan seemingly doesn’t. I’m not sold on Sakho in a back four (he was fantastic in a three though) and you know it’s only a matter of time before one of his dodgy hamstrings goes pop again. Maybe Skrtel prefers playing with Lovren? I don’t know, but there could be any number of reasons why Lovren got the nod. There’s no point getting mad about it though, not until Lovren’s performances merit it anyway.


He’s under huge pressure to perform because the first mistake he makes will have the fans clamouring for him to be binned, so fair play for how he responded in this game. He was excellent, the only knock against his performance was the elbow to the face of Diouf that earned him a booking. Could easily, easily have been a red that if the referee had wanted to enforce the law a bit more strictly (the ref had a good game actually, which is a rare thing these days). Aside from that Lovren was excellent though. Let’s hope he keeps it up.


While the defensive shape of the team was good and we restricted Stoke to virtually no clear cut chances (the Johnson miss aside), work is obviously going to be needed on the training ground to get the attacking unit to gel. The alehouse balls to Benteke need to stop but you’d have to assume that will work itself out quickly enough.


What I’m most interested to see is when and how often we’ll see the pressing game. In pre-season Rodgers was experimenting with two ways of playing. There was the high tempo, press high up the pitch style that I’ll always associate with the title challenge of two years ago, but there’s also an alternative approach of sitting off and filling spaces. That’s how we played against Stoke and maybe we’ll see more of that throughout the season, particularly away from home.


It’s worth remembering though that we’ve looked leggy and sluggish to start every season that Rodgers has been here, and it has to be related to the training regime surely? We seem to get strong around the turn of the year, so that’s something to look out for over the next few weeks. I want to see us swarming all over teams, getting in people’s faces and winning the ball back high up the pitch, but I’m not sure we will get it for a little while yet.


Brendan was the luckiest manager in the league when he held onto his job over the summer and that luck continued into this game with Johnson missing that great chance and then Coutinho scoring just as he was about to be brought off. We probably didn’t do enough to say we deserved to win the game and 0-0 would have been the most accurate reflection of it, but if our luck is finally turning for the better after the brutal last 15 months we’ve had then great.


This was a huge win. You can’t really overstate the importance of it in the overall context of our difficult start. We’ve got a number of away games coming up where we may not take many points, which in turn puts extra pressure on us to win the home games. By winning at Stoke we’ve set ourselves up perfectly for Bournemouth. Win that and we’ve taken six points from six which would be just what the doctor ordered.


We’ll need to play considerably better than this though as we can’t rely on the little Magician banging in worldies all the time.



Team: Mignolet; Clyne, Skrtel, Lovren, Gomez; Henderson, Milner; Ibe (Firmino), Coutinho, Lallana (Can); Benteke:


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Very good points about the tactics and the players' legs, Dave. Both will need constantly re-visiting this season as we come to understand what Brendan's trying to do.


The point about us being leggy up to Christmas under him is spot on. That's been the case during the last three campaigns. In terms of the pressing vs filling space, my hope is that he's going to adopt a horses for courses approach to his tactics this season which can broadly (but not exclusively) be split into home and away, or maybe more accurately, dangerous opponent and not so dangerous opponent.


As I said on the last podcast thread, if we'd been more tactically responsive to the specific opposition, we'd have won the title fifteen months ago. Certainly, if it's Brendan's intention to vary his approach, then that's a very big sign that he's learnt a few lessons as Liverpool manager and is adapting accordingly.

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Whichever tactic Brendan decides to use I hope he lets Milner know, as poor James was running around like a lemon for the first 25 minutes until he realised the others were looking at him as if he was crackers. 

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