Liverpool underwhelm, still get the win
Life without Luis Suarez began with a win, but Liverpool certainly made hard work of it against a spirited and surprisingly well-organised Southampton side. Daniel Sturridge's late winner gave Brendan Rodgers' men a 2-1 win Sunday and three points they probably didn't deserve; the Reds will need to shape up pretty quickly given their next fixture is a daunting trip to the Etihad Stadium to face defending champions Manchester City.
It was far from being the ideal way to kick the season off, but Kopites don't have too much cause for concern; the performance against Southampton was poor, but even the best teams have off days. There are plenty of worse things than playing badly and winning 2-1. Playing badly and losing 2-1, for example -- just ask Louis van Gaal.
Days like these have been extremely rare for Liverpool in 2014. The trademark vibrant attacking football was nowhere to be seen and this was a plodding, uninspired display. That was in no small part due to the strange setup employed by Rodgers. The manager got it wrong, just as he did in the corresponding fixture last season. Thankfully, he corrected his initial error and his substitutions ultimately helped to turn the game in Liverpool's favour.
The inclusion of Lucas Leiva in the starting lineup was surprising, to say the least. There's a very good reason the Brazilian and Steven Gerrard didn't play together much in the second half of last season; it just doesn't work. Many of Liverpool's worst performances last season came with Lucas and Gerrard paired together in midfield, and it was no coincidence that the team's brilliant form last season usually came with the Brazilian watching from the bench and the more mobile Joe Allen or Philippe Coutinho in the midfield three.
Liverpool's success in 2014 has been based around pace when they have the ball and high-energy pressing when they haven't. With Lucas and Gerrard in the same team, the press disappears and the ball movement in possession can become too pedestrian. With Allen and Emre Can both available, selecting Lucas in a 4-2-3-1 was a curious call by Rodgers, and it's fair to say it was the wrong one.
Barring one moment of real quality from Jordan Henderson that led to the opening goal for Raheem Sterling (expertly finished by the youngster), Liverpool's first-half performance was extremely subdued. Sturridge was too isolated, Coutinho couldn't get into the game and Henderson was stifled by playing wide. The Reds barely got anywhere near Fraser Forster's goal and their attacks took too long to build, allowing a well-organised Saints side to get back into their defensive shape and keep Liverpool's formidable attack comfortably at arm's length.
Defensively, Liverpool were largely untroubled, with Dejan Lovren an assured presence, but Southampton didn't show too much attacking ambition in the first half and it made for a rare dull 45 minutes at Anfield. The Saints came out with much more attacking intent after the break, however, and deservedly levelled through the excellent Nathaniel Clyne. Liverpool were all over the place at this point and almost fell behind when Steven Davis wasted a glorious opening when he shot too close to Simon Mignolet.
Rodgers eventually saw the error of his ways, sending Allen on for Lucas and switching to a 4-3-3. Things immediately improved, but it took another substitution and a further change in formation before the winning goal arrived; the below-par Coutinho was withdrawn for Rickie Lambert, who entered the fray to cheers from both sets of fans.
That meant a switch to a 4-4-2 diamond formation, and it paid immediate dividends when Sterling headed into the path of Sturridge, who diverted the ball into the corner of the net. The sense of relief around Anfield was palpable, but the Saints weren't done yet, and only a combination of Mignolet and the woodwork preserved Liverpool's lead.
Despite the shoddy performance and somewhat fortunate manner of victory, there are still plenty of positives for Liverpool fans. For one thing, Liverpool suffered a defeat in this fixture last season, so they are already three points ahead of the curve from that perspective. It's also encouraging to see Sturridge open his account quickly, too; with Suarez gone, Rodgers needs the England striker to maintain the impressive strike rate he has shown since joining the club.
Sterling was Liverpool's best performer, as he so often has been in 2014, while Henderson led by example and was still pressing and harrying deep into stoppage time. Spanish youngster Javier Manquillo had a steady debut at right-back and can be pleased with his efforts, certainly more so than the experienced Glen Johnson on the opposite flank, who disappointed yet again.
There is plenty of room for improvement and Liverpool will certainly get better. It's a cliché, but to win the title, you have to find a way to pick up three points even on the days when you don't play well, and if Liverpool had found a way to beat Southampton last season, they'd have been champions. Every game is vital, as you never know which draw or defeat is going to prove decisive.
It's rare to see the Reds perform this poorly at home, and it's unlikely they'll play worse than this on too many occasions this season. This was their worst Anfield performance since losing to the Saints in this fixture last season, so to come out of it with maximum points is a real bonus for Rodgers.
As poor as Liverpool were -- and as self-inflicted as that was -- you have to give credit to Ronald Koeman's side, who were excellent. The biggest compliment I can pay them is that despite the change of coach and loss of several key players, they still looked like "Southampton." A lot of people feared for them this season following the events of the summer, but they'll be just fine based on this early evidence.
As for Liverpool, they will be delighted to have taken maximum points and won't be overly concerned with the nature of the display as they know they can play much better than this. With difficult away fixtures at Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur up next, it was vital that they won this game as it promises to be very tight at the top again this year, so you can't afford to fall behind early on.