Brendan Rodgers must be more picky about use of Philippe Coutinho
Everyone's a critic. Liverpool's first defeat of the season brought them out in force. That it was against the champions on their own ground, a fixture that has brought scant reward for the reds whatever the situation, did temper the censures somewhat.
It's all right saying that patience needs to be shown, but one or two more poor results and people will get twitchy. Assumptions are already being made about Sunday's match against what seems a resurgent Tottenham team. They're being factored into any assessment of Liverpool's start before a ball has even been kicked in their third game.
In terms of writing about the team, this will inevitably be a year of repetition. The size of the challenge to the players and the manager this season has increased manifold, and things won't be clicking into place immediately. It involves a certain amount of experimentation on the manager's part, some of which is almost bound to blow up in his face. Supporters will have tremendous fun playing jigsaw with all the shiny new "pieces" in the squad. They think it's just a guessing game, however, and that Brendan Rodgers will already have a final shape and XI in mind. You'd be surprised.
That automatically assumes each purchase was made on purpose, with an existing blueprint to account for them. Not always so. The transfer market wriggles elusively. Option A wants excessive wages, Option B's club wants an extravagant fee and Option C decides another big club is the better bet for him. Before he knows it, a manager has to buy his fourth choice and any original planning already has to be adapted to fit the new buy. Multiply that by six or seven and watch the nightmare unfold.
In the case of Rodgers and Liverpool the early pursuit of Adam Lallana was significant and quite possibly a rare instance of Option A being secured. Then he got injured during preseason and plans were scuppered right out of the gate.
Dave Usher touched on the latest performance of Philippe Coutinho in his blog yesterday, and that is the likely area for Lallana to operate within. The little Brazilian is much loved at Anfield, where he tends to dazzle more often than not. It is on his travels that he has the most trouble.
Few will have had any argument with his selection for Monday night beforehand. After all, he did score in both matches with Manchester City last season, though he rather picked Raheem Sterling's pocket for an easy tap-in to an empty net at the Etihad this past Christmas.
It's just that fans have come to expect this sort of sketchy away performance from him nowadays, and after an hour with his team 2-0 down, Rodgers motioned to his substitutes' bench. Everyone more or less knew who would be leaving the pitch. He was just having "one of those days."
Unlike the knee-jerk early criticism of Liverpool after two games, approval of Coutinho's substitution was based on more solid evidence from numerous away games last season, when his presence seemed almost detrimental to the team. At West Bromwich Albion he was particularly poor, and despite the reds beating Southampton with 50 minutes played in March the manager knew a change was necessary.
Sterling added another goal almost immediately after coming on for Coutinho. It was the reverse situation at Crystal Palace. On that fateful night in May, Coutinho came on with a 3-0 lead that should have been closed out, and the match was drawn within 10 minutes of his arrival! All very coincidental and hardly the player's fault entirely, but having to win their final game rather than just getting a point might have given Manchester City a little more to think about.
This is a conundrum Rodgers needs to solve; one among numerous others, admittedly. There's little doubt that on his day Coutinho can help destroy the opposition, as he did against Arsenal in February. He also had a superb game against Borussia Dortmund just before the proper season began. Both were at Anfield.
He did not, however, have a particularly great match against Southampton on the opening day, but his selection against weaker opposition on home soil made more sense than also selecting Lucas Leiva in a defensive role. Whenever Coutinho has contributed well on away grounds, it was perhaps not a coincidence that those sides -- Fulham, Cardiff City, Norwich City -- were all relegated.
Rodgers does have this lofty view on how the game ought to be played. He was initially contemptuous of Jose Mourinho's (successful) tactics for Chelsea at Anfield in April. When asked whether he would ever consider playing in such a manner he snorted derisively -- "What do you think?" -- but eventually he will have to learn such tactics even if they are rarely employed or needed.
For difficult away games, the old cliché about having to "earn the right to play" first still holds good. In the past 12 months, Liverpool have lost at Manchester City twice, Arsenal twice, Chelsea once and almost lost at Everton. True, Tottenham were absolutely thrashed, but were at such a low ebb they had to sack their manager afterwards. An easy ride is certainly not expected this coming Sunday.
It may not even be Coutinho's fault entirely. For the selection of such an attack-minded player who can often lose the ball because he's trying something different, there must be a balance with a strong defensive midfielder, and that isn't really Steven Gerrard's forte, no matter how deeply he plays. Lucas looks likely to leave shortly, and isn't the required standard anyway.
City's manager Manuel Pellegrini worked it out from last season's 3-2 defeat. Though Coutinho lost possession cheaply often through little pressure at all, there was certainly extra attention on him. Yaya Toure was even booked for a challenge on the Brazilian after illegally ensuring he couldn't make a quick break towards the City box. Eventually the Brazilian became a luxury Liverpool couldn't afford.
Rodgers was impressive last season but the element of surprise was certainly a key factor. Now he has to gauge how other managers will counter what is no longer surprising, and do it with a large crop of new players he hasn't really had the requisite time to work with yet.
Rest assured that Mauricio Pochettino will also have something up his sleeve. Let the chess games begin.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @goat_boy_1959.