After Liverpool suffered a disappointing defeat to Southampton following a week of bullish talk from Brendan Rodgers, Matt Stanger looks at the reasons for the setback...
By Matt Stanger
Last Updated: 21/09/13 11:03pm
The curse of Brendan Rodgers continued at Anfield on Saturday as Liverpool suffered their first defeat in 13 matches since a 3-1 loss to Southampton in March.
The Reds boss seems to have a knack for setting up disappointing results with his bullish talk and this week was no different as his team slumped to another defeat against the Saints thanks to Dejan Lovren's second-half header.
"When I came here last year, there was no consistency in the performance," said Rodgers following Monday's 2-2 draw with Swansea. "But now we are just churning out wins and if we can't win we are drawing games with resilient performances, like in the last 25 minutes against Swansea."
Perhaps 'grinding out wins' would have been more appropriate after three 1-0 victories helped Liverpool climb to first place in the Premier League. But Rodgers frequently allows himself to get carried away, insisting that the Reds are 'ready for the fight' at the top of the table.
This isn't the first time the manager's words have set up a hard fall. Before a 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa last December, Rodgers responded to back-to-back wins by saying: "We lie four points off the top four. For me the ambition is to grow higher.
"We are 11 points off second and that can all turn around very quickly. You need to get consistency - and that is what we have at the minute."
And it was the same before March's loss at St Mary's, after a 3-2 victory over Spurs again boosted Rodgers' confidence.
"All season people have spoken about us not beating anyone from the top ten, then it was the top eight and top six and top four," said Rodgers, who led Liverpool to only three wins in 18 matches against the other sides in the top half of the table last year.
"The game against Spurs was a stringent test and they came through it. We know where we want to be eventually but this is another marker for us in terms of our growth."
While Liverpool's promising start to the season has engendered optimism over a top-four challenge, Saturday's defeat should serve as a necessary reality check. Without Philippe Coutinho, the Reds looked devoid of ideas in the final third and over-reliant on Daniel Sturridge, who has scored four of the team's five league goals so far.
It was no surprise to see Coutinho's replacement, Iago Aspas, hauled off at half time and the Spaniard's performance was indicative of Liverpool's lack of incision. Aspas completed just 65% of his passes and failed to create a single chance or complete a single dribble in 45 uninspiring minutes.
Although the 26-year-old has struggled to make an impression in his first five appearances, there is of course plenty of time to turn things around. Aspas' integration into the side is far from Rodgers' only concern, too, as the manager looks to build a new-look team shaped by the club's shrewd summer signings.
Simon Mignolet proved his shot-stopping ability with some fine saves to prevent Southampton extending their lead, but the keeper's poor passing was again an issue as Saints sensed the Belgian's anxiety with their high pressing. Mignolet's average pass completion rate stands at a lowly 45% in his first five matches - 14th out of all regular top-flight No 1s - compared to Pepe Reina's impressive average of 71% last season.
Mignolet might argue that his settling-in period hasn't been aided by the changes in front of him, with Rodgers picking four different defensive combinations in the first five matches. The manager's selections have been influenced by injuries to Glen Johnson and Kolo Toure - who was arguably Liverpool's best player on Saturday - but it was strange to see him start with four centre-backs against Southampton.
A key feature of Liverpool's system under Rodgers has been marauding full-backs who readily support the attack and look to create two v one situations down the flanks. It was therefore puzzling that Rodgers preferred Mamadou Sakho to Jose Enrique on left and the former PSG captain struggled to link up effectively with Victor Moses.
That Rodgers eventually substituted both Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel (with Enrique brought on after an hour and Sakho moving into the middle) hints at the manager's admission that he was wrong in his initial selection. However, Rodgers' post-match reaction certainly suggests that he isn't willing to shoulder all of the blame.
"Both the performance and the result were very disappointing," he said. "That is the brutally honesty of it. The goal was criminal, really."
It is by no means all doom and gloom for Liverpool following their first defeat of the new campaign, but this timely set-back serves a reminder to Rodgers that the Reds are some way from being the finished article. The absence of European football this season allows increased focus on the Premier League, but Liverpool's squad still lacks convincing options beyond a solid core of 14 or 15 players, as the late introduction of rookie Luis Alberto proved against Southampton.
Another worry for Rodgers is that Sturridge's performance level dipped for the first time on Saturday, which should come as little surprise considering the striker's lack of a proper pre-season. Without Coutinho in the side, Sturridge was forced to drop deeper and deeper as the match progressed and he looked exhausted towards the end of his second 90 minutes in six days.
Luis Suarez's anticipated return against Manchester United in Wednesday's League Cup tie will clearly provide a boost to Liverpool and bring a much-needed goal threat, but Rodgers cannot afford to lose players in any position and the absence of Coutinho and Johnson remains a concern.
Whatever happens on Wednesday, at least we can expect the manager to be a little more cautious in his reaction after the latest sting in the tail.