A rain-soaked St Mary’s was the venue as Liverpool’s superb recent form was placed into some perspective by a vibrant and energetic Southampton side. The south coast club matched Brendan Rodgers’ Reds across the park and deserved a victory that propels them out of the relegation battle and into the relative safety of the lower-mid table.
For Liverpool, it was a game that raised questions regarding Rodgers’ team selection. Crucially, Lucas was dropped for Joe Allen – a move that left the side vulnerable in the space between midfield and defence. Lucas had been superb since returning from injury, frequently registering the highest number of interceptions and tackles from his colleagues in red.
Perhaps Joe Allen’s crucial role last week in the win over Spurs, when he came on and settled the side during a turbulent opening to the second side, was enough to convince the manager that he was ready to face Mauricio Pochettino’s Saints. Liverpool fans will be wondering how a player who is destined for shoulder surgery in the near future is able to compete for ninety minutes against a side who have much to play for – not least their Premier League status.
Conversely, in defence of Rodgers, Lucas may have warranted a rest. He’d been a regular since returning to the side; it’s only natural that a midfielder with his energy and focus would need a break after such a prolonged absence.
From Liverpool’s perspective, the first goal was the culmination of poor focus and a lack of closing down; avoidable to say the least. Three opportunities to get tighter to Southampton players were missed as Gaston Ramirez, Jay Rodgriguez and, crucially, Morgan Schneiderlin, peeled off their markers and combined to deliver the first goal. Enrique was slow to close Ramirez, a player who floats between the lines and is capable of creating off his left foot. At the very least, the Spanish left back should’ve worked harder to put the Uruguayan onto his weaker right side thus closing the angle for the switch pass.
Glen Johnson was caught ball watching as he tucked inside to cover Martin Skrtel. Credit must go to the rejuvenated and impressive Jay Rodriguez, for it was his movement wider that enabled him to knock down for Schneiderlin to delicately finish. Perhaps Skrtel could’ve got tighter; rust was certainly evident in the Slovaks game throughout the afternoon.
Southampton’s second was far less culpable from Liverpool’s perspective. Rickie Lambert’s free-kick, though well struck, was deflected in by Daniel Sturridge. Brad Jones was wrong footed and the Saints enjoyed a piece of luck that changed the mentality of the away side and propelled the home side into the ascendancy.
An overly critical pundit may point to the concession of the free kick – a needless, rash challenge by Martin Skrtel, who climbed all over Liverpool-born Southampton front man, Lambert. Danger was scarce – the ball was over thirty yards away from Jones’ goal. At worst Lambert would control, back to goal and bring in a team-mate. With Gerrard and Allen covering, Skrtel could/should have executed more thought.
Liverpool’s glimmer of hope arrived in the dying minutes of the first half as Coutinho’s well worked goal restored belief. Well worked, may be an overstatement however the move, especially in the final five/six touches was punctuated by intelligent movement and men in the box. Liverpool have been criticized at times for not committed enough men into the opposition area, however Coutinho’s goal saw Gerrard, the Brazilian, Sturridge and Downing all occupy the Southampton area.
Gerrard’s movement, similar to Rodriguez for the first goal, was the key to Suarez opening up play from deeper. After a couple of efforts by Coutinho and Sturridge, the former Inter man was on hand to slot home the loose ball. Credit goes to the man Saints boss Pocchetino coached last season as he waited in space for the rebound and finished well in a crowded six yard box.
The hope soon turned to resignation as Jay Rodriguez’s fine solo effort consigned the Reds to a crucial league defeat that all but ended their hope of a Champions League finish.
The goal was punctuated by a lack of closing down once again, and leadership, in Liverpool’s defence. Lucas was too far from play to impact Rodriguez’s first twenty yards with the ball so it should’ve fallen to Johnson or Skrtel to step out and close down. Frustratingly for Liverpool fans, both backed off and granted the former Burnley striker a clear run on goal.
While his initial shot was parried by Jones, he gratefully accepted the second chance. It was reminiscent of timid goals the Reds were conceding earlier in the season as the opposition found space in central areas ahead of the defence and drove at speed. While Lucas has greatly impacted in this regard, the defence needed to offer him some assistance and close down the move. It begs the question; would he have been afforded such space if Carragher was playing? At the very least the soon-to-retire centre half would’ve broken up play with the concession of a free-kick or standing up of the striker.
Replays show that Agger was playing to cover his right side who he believed would step out. He came across to sweep, anticipating a defender closing down Rodriguez; frustratingly, it never happened.
So what do the stats say about the Reds’ performance?
In the simplest break-down, it was a game lost on the quality of passing in the final third. The Liverpool performance was littered with misplaced passes, poor decision-making and a lack of creativity. Key players such as Coutinho, Suarez and Gerrard were not at their best and will rue missed opportunities to open up a notoriously shaky Southampton back line.
The graphics below depict all the passes from the game, by both sides. It delivers a stark contrast between the areas of passing. While Southampton’s is evenly spread around the pitch, a mark of their ability to go long when required thus stretch the game and bring in Lambert, Liverpool’s is focused largely around midfield in their own half. Perhaps this is why Steven Gerrard touched the ball 62 times, a full 15 times more than anyone else on the pitch. For Liverpool, play was too sideways.
It was a notable regression from recent games where the fluidity of movement and speed of play was palpable.
The notion of Southampton controlling the game in the key areas is evident in the following stats. Liverpool managed to complete 57/107 passes in the final third. Compare that with Southampton who managed a staggering 111/174 possible passes. In the key areas ahead of the Liverpool defence and in the narrow, inside channels, the likes of Lallana, Rodriguez and Rickie Lambert were precise, sharp and intelligent in their play.
Lallana was, in fact, a handful for the Reds throughout the game and our choice for man of the match. He linked up play brilliantly with 88% pass accuracy. Lucas may have countered his threat with his ability to read the game and intercept, however Allen and Gerrard were clearly out-thought in the midfield battle.
Lallana perhaps best summed up the differences between the two teams on the day. He only passed the ball 34 times; 28 times less than Gerrard. However the majority of these were in the final third and he provided 6 crosses for Lambert and Rodriguez to attack. He retained Southampton’s purpose and helped distort the Liverpool shape.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Merseysider’s however. Glen Johnson’s performance was a notable exclusion. While he should’ve been tighter on the first goal, he was Liverpool’s most potent attacking threat, providing 4 key passes that led to 2 clear-cut chances. He also took the most touches and provided the most accurate crosses with 50%. Furthermore he won the most tackles and ground duels against a youthful Southampton left side that included Luke Shaw and a drifting Lallana.
For Liverpool there’ll need to be a greater emphasis on playing with purpose. The Reds, much like in the days of Rafa Benitez, look at their best when they attack with speed and play at pace. Too often against Southampton, their play mirrored the inconsistency of the first half of the season. They lacked verve and directness.
This isn’t to say the system deployed by Rodgers is a failure. On the contrary, it’s progressive and offers creative freedom. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to movement intelligently and speed up the transition. Against Swansea, the 5-0 victory, the reds were playing on the counter at 5/6 metres per second. Against Southampton it was 3m/s. The speed of play allowed the home side to reorganize thus double up on Suarez and deny Coutinho the chance to create inside on his right foot.
The signs are still bright for the Anfield club and consistency is a notoriously hard skill to master. However with added purpose, time and leadership, they will inevitably consign results such as this one to history. That remains the hope of the supporters at least. Most are fortunate to witness a fearsome Liverpool side when they play with intensity and tempo.