The Reds recorded only their second win in nine matches courtesy of Glen Johnson’s header but under-fire Brendan Rodgers remains a man with questions to answer
Late, desperate scrambles have characterised a lot of Liverpool’s wins this season and so it proved again against Stoke. It was untidy and it was not enough to convince that last season’s runners-up might have finally found the solutions to re-align their campaign this time around.
This was a victory more of luck than design and Stoke pressed for a goal until the final seconds when Liverpool were clinging on and waiting for the whistle. Glen Johnson stooped bravely to head in after 86 minutes of fruitless play for the hosts, who struggled for fluency in front of an Anfield crowd that was either silent or complaining.
“I felt we needed to up the speed of our game a bit and press a bit higher,” said Brendan Rodgers of his team’s second-half performance. “In the first half we had enough of the ball but lacked a bit of intensity which is understandable. Second half we were excellent and deserved it. The courage we showed to keep going. It was hard-fought victory.”
Rodgers, as is his wont, may have been a bit too generous in his assessment. A defeat was less than Stoke deserved although, after two injury-enforced substitutions, they had run out of gas by that stage. The Potters also boasted two of the three best players on the pitch. Mame Biram Diouf had a shot blocked on the line and was difficult to mark throughout. Bojan Krkic hit the post. “Everyone saw the quality he has,” Mark Hughes said of the Catalan. “He is getting stronger in every game. He is enjoying the Premier League; enjoying playing for us. We need to give him the ball more often because he has the ability to produce.”
Bojan in particular threatened to make a bad season worse for Brendan Rodgers but it was an old head who managed to give Liverpool their first league win since beating QPR in mid-October.
Indeed, only one player signed in the summer’s cursed transfer window started for Liverpool. Rickie Lambert was chosen to lead the side’s attack and showed why he was only ever intended to play back-up. Had Daniel Sturridge been fit, the number of new signings would probably have been zero.
A combined £90-odd million worth of talent sat on the bench; the clearest indication given yet by Rodgers that he catastrophically misjudged the club’s transfer dealings in the wake of Luis Suarez’s departure for Barcelona.
Had he tried to roll back the clock any further, he might have picked Peter Crouch and Charlie Adam from the Stoke bench.
“We need players at this time who have quality and experience,” Rodgers said afterwards of his decision to pull the new signings out of the firing line. “Lucas Leiva has come in and been outstanding in two games. Kolo Toure’s got experience. The guys that came in, the younger players, will get experience. We need to have confidence in the team.”
Dejan Lovren though, a £20m signing from Southampton, is very much in ‘dropped’ territory at this stage having paid the price for a string of ordinary performances. Alberto Moreno was bought as an expensive replacement for Jose Enrique yet his compatriot was preferred here against Jon Walters. Adam Lallana has perhaps been Liverpool’s best summer signing but even he has not made himself an automatic choice. Emre Can and Lazar Markovic, about whom the less is said the better, were the other outfield players on the bench beside Steven Gerrard.
The captain cannot be relied upon to play effectively three times a week these days but on this the 16th anniversary of his Liverpool debut, he did not appear to take well to his manager’s decision to rest him. He cut a sulky figure in the warm-up, barely exchanging glances let alone words with his fellow substitutes. He was eventually given an introduction, and the arm-band, as he trotted out late on.
“I wasn’t aware it was 16 years until I walked into the dressing room and saw the programme,” Rodgers said. “Steven is in a part of his career when he is not going to play every minute of every game.”
This had been a dismal run for Liverpool, one win in eight matches, and Rodgers’ decision to drop all the new boys hinted at desperation. No longer does he seem to be picking specific XIs; he is merely hoping someone comes good. That someone here was Raheem Sterling; again Liverpool’s best player by far.
Sterling cut Stoke open time and time again, causing panic whenever the ball found his feet; two of the opposition back four were booked for fouls on the England man and in the second half in particular he bent his team’s attacking forays to his will. He set up Lucas and then Joe Allen for the best chances prior to the goal. He fired another one of his own just wide.
Sterling is moving towards the status that Luis Suarez enjoyed here last season; undroppable and totally relied upon. For Rodgers, he simply needs proper solutions. He may well take short-term success from Sterling’s contributions but the time will come when he, too, cannot give any more.
Then who will step up?