Liverpool going blank again
It was a typical run, a moment to sum up Dirk Kuyt. Leaving his station in attack, the Dutchman headed for the corner flag, covering the ground as tirelessly as ever. He left a vacancy that no one rushed to fill.
Eventually, tentatively, Glen Johnson entered the penalty area. Liverpool had a centre forward. Of sorts. Apart from Stoke defenders and their goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen, the right-back was alone in the box.
It was one moment and a solitary move, but illustrative of much of a match. There are times this season when all Liverpool have missed was the finishing touch, the clinical instinct that turns draws into wins. This wasn't one of them. As Stoke departed Anfield with a hard-fought point, they lacked much more: incision and inspiration, ambition and adventure. They neither bombarded the goal nor scored a goal.
"They came for a point and they got a point," Kenny Dalglish said. "The responsibility is on us to be more imaginative to break them down. On the day we weren't good enough."
It was a systemic failure, compounded by the personnel in the final third, one where the blame can be distributed between the manager, the players picked and the one who was absent. Luis Suarez was missed, more for his capacity to make something happen than for his erratic finishing, on an afternoon when the loudest cheer greeted Sami Hyypia's appearance on the pitch at half-time. A Champions League winner witnessed his former employers provide an indication that they may not be back among the European elite last season. Not after a blunt attack contributed to a seventh draw in 11 games at Anfield.
Dalglish's thinking was counter-intuitive. With a team who are less prolific than Bolton and Blackburn, with his top scorer, the suspended Suarez, missing, against a Stoke side who came for a draw, he bolstered his defence. If 5-4-1 was the defensive interpretation of his tactics, 3-4-2-1 the more progressive perspective; whichever, it was not remotely bold. He who didn't dare, drew.
The problems extended beyond the persevering Kuyt. Neither Stewart Downing nor Jordan Henderson are natural support strikers; neither is at his finest in the hole. Too few runs were made beyond Kuyt, self-sacrificing as ever in a role that called for selfishness. The trio have a combined total of one league goal this season. They were the spearhead of the side.
Opportunities to double that meagre tally were scarce but squandered. The best fell to Kuyt, who launched himself at Jose Enrique's deflected cross and headed wide. Eight months without a league strike, the trying Dutchman is no nearer to ending his drought.
Not that he was the sole culprit. Too often, as Liverpool advanced, the Stoke box was manned only by the visitors. When belatedly summoned, Andy Carroll at least provided a presence, resulting in a series of penalty appeals when he collided with Robert Huth or Ryan Shawcross; "more out of desperation," Tony Pulis said. Beyond that, Carroll's afternoon was notable for blocking a goalbound effort from Henderson.
While a second striker was belatedly introduced, stubbornness was apparent in a reluctance to admit the tactics weren't working. The five defenders, with Sebastian Coates making a first Premier League start, all completed the game.
In contrast, Stoke's plans were subject to a rethink before kick-off. "We changed the shape of the team when we saw Kenny was playing with three centre halves," Pulis said. "We put [Jonathan] Walters wide." It left Peter Crouch alone in attack, leaving Liverpool overloaded in defence. It amounted to a tactical triumph for Pulis.
"Thomas Sorensen has not made save after save after save," he noted. Indeed, there was only one, from Henderson before late headers from Kuyt and Martin Skrtel narrowly missed the target. "We're delighted," Pulis added. "The effort and the commitment the players put in was fantastic. That's four points off Liverpool, two clean sheets and that's a great achievement for us."
Dalglish could pluck fewer positives from a mediocre display. He cited his players' effort and added: "The boys at the back looked pretty comfortable." And so the three central defenders should, up against a solitary striker in a team who rarely attacked.
But the reality was that there were too many of them. What Liverpool required was players in the other box. Too often, they had too few and dropped two points.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Robert Huth – Liverpool failed to find a way around 'the Berlin Wall', who was dominant in defence for the visitors. Alongside him, Shawcross was almost as impressive.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Too negative from the start, their caution cost them. It was a display to highlight the lack of regular goalscorers in a side – the starting 11 only had eight in the league this season – and with Craig Bellamy presumably not deemed able to start three days after the victory at Manchester City, it should have been a stage for Carroll. It makes his initial omission all the odder and his £35 million move appear all the more misguided. Meanwhile Downing, who was removed, was again overshadowed by Enrique. The Spaniard seems to beat defenders with rather more ease than the specialist winger.
STOKE VERDICT: A performance of resolve and determination brought the point they deserved. Stoke only attacked infrequently, though Matthew Etherington impressed on their rare forays forward. Plenty of others – Marc Wilson, Rory Delap, Jonathan Woodgate – worked hard as Stoke reached the 30-point barrier. Their first target, safety, is almost achieved, and the likelihood is that they will get a first top-10 finish in the Premier League.