Rebuilt Reds still figuring it out
Two games into a new season is far too early to be making any snap judgments.
That being said, I'm sure it's not just me who has been a little taken aback by the lack of a cutting edge in Liverpool's play so far. I wasn't naive enough to think it would be "business as usual" following the loss of Luis Suarez, but I did expect them to look sharper than this.
Brendan Rodgers' men had plenty of possession in the 3-1 loss at the Etihad on Monday night, but attack after attack fizzled out as soon as it reached the City penalty area.
Vincent Kompany and his fellow defenders deserve credit for that, but we're simply not accustomed to seeing Liverpool's attack blunted like that. Southampton coped pretty well too until conceding that late goal to Daniel Sturridge, so there is some slight cause for concern despite the season still being in its infancy.
The poor defending and conceding of silly goals from last season is still a staple of Liverpool's play it seems, but the swashbuckling forward play has been conspicuous by its absence so far. If you can't defend then you better be able to attack or you're going to be in trouble. Just ask Louis van Gaal.
Perhaps there's nothing for Liverpool fans to worry about; the Southampton performance can be put down to first-day nerves, while few teams will go to the Etihad and look great going forward. It's too small a sample size to draw any firm conclusions and it's possible (albeit highly unlikely) that the Reds could go to White Hart Lane this weekend and repeat last season's humiliation of Spurs. For that to happen they will need a monumental improvement on what we've seen so far, and perhaps a change of system too.
There was a school of thought that the departure of Suarez -- while clearly a huge blow -- would simplify things for Rodgers in terms of how he sets up his team.
He's known to favour a 4-3-3 formation but opted to veer away from that because his two star players (the lethal duo known as "the SAS") were central strikers. The recruitment of players such as Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana added further weight to the theory that 4-3-3 was the way forward post-Suarez, and given the players at his disposal 4-3-3 certainly seemed like the way to go.
Now? I'm not so sure.
Again, it's only two games and nothing is definitive here. It could simply be that Liverpool have had a couple of "off days" or it could just be early-season teething trouble. They started slowly last year too, grinding out 1-0 wins early on and not really hitting the goal-scoring heights until the second part of the season. Perhaps that is what is happening now and after a few months they'll slip into top gear again?
What if it's more than that though? What if it's a tactical issue?
Sturridge likes to roam the forward line; he drops deep and he drifts wide. When he did that last season, Liverpool still had another top striker giving the centre-backs all they could handle. When Sturridge has done it this season, Raheem Sterling has had to try to get in there from wide areas, otherwise there was nobody. He's had some success with that (his goal against Southampton for example) but it's not the same as having someone there all the time, hence the Reds looking more threatening with Rickie Lambert on the field.
The goal against City illustrated that perfectly; Sturridge picked the ball up wide and was able to put a dangerous ball to the back post where Lambert was waiting. In a 4-3-3 that option wouldn't have been available to him (or he'd have been looking for the diminutive Sterling).
With Mario Balotelli now officially on board and presumably earmarked for a first-team place, Rodgers has to decide how best to integrate the Italian into his side. He could use him -- or indeed Sturridge -- from one of the flanks in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but in both of their fixtures so far Liverpool have looked at their most dangerous following the introduction of Lambert and subsequent switch to the diamond formation that served them so well in the latter stages of 2013-14.
Rodgers won't be pressing the panic button by any means and he'll know better than anybody how to get the best out of Liverpool's attacking talent. This is the coach who masterminded the highest goal-scoring campaign in club history, don't forget. It may take a little time to figure out, however, as last season the side almost picked itself due to a lack of squad depth, whereas now he has numerous options to choose from.
Markovic showed some flashes on his debut and will put pressure on Philippe Coutinho, who once again flattered to deceive away from the comfort of Anfield, while Lallana (Rodgers' No. 1 transfer priority this summer) is now back in training and should be available soon. And of course a certain explosive Italian has now been added to the mix.
Whom do you choose? What system do you play? Do you persist with the same players and hope they click, or give everybody a look and decide who deserves to play? So many questions.
I'd suggest there's a more than reasonable chance Rodgers will soon turn to the midfield diamond with two up front. It worked well last season and it's been relatively successful in its limited outings this term.
What you gain on the swings you often lose on the roundabouts, and by going with two up front perhaps Liverpool may have to sacrifice some of the possession they had in the two opening fixtures. Is that such a bad thing though? The possession did them little good at the Etihad; for long spells of the game Liverpool looked the better side, but that counts for nothing when you're so ineffective in both penalty areas.
Last year was a roller-coaster ride for Kopites as Liverpool combined defensive vulnerability with dazzling attacking play to make them the most entertaining team in the land. The defensive frailty appears to still be there unfortunately, but the devastating play at the other end has been absent thus far. Mario, I guess it's over to you.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.