In what is likely to be one of the dullest matches played all season, Liverpool managed to squeeze out a 1-0 victory over Stoke at the Britannia Stadium, thanks in part to an absolute screamer from Philippe Coutinho.
Not much went right for the Reds however, but they were rewarded with three points nonetheless. Here are five things we learned from today’s match.
1. Philippe Coutinho is still the main man
Coutinho’s efforts last year earned him a spot on the PFA Team of the Year, meaning much more is expected of him this season. Although Liverpool went on a spending spree to bolster the attack, the Brazilian proved today that he should still be the focal point.
His time off from training due to the Copa America did show as he wasn’t too sharp throughout the match. That sharpness will come however, and his worldie in the 86th minute showed that he still has what it takes to lead the attack.
Christian Benteke didn’t have his best performance while Roberto Firmino entered later on off the bench and was lively but didn’t have much of an opportunity to showcase his ability.
As the season wears on those new boys will contribute more but for now Coutinho is the man of the moment. As Liverpool adapt to a new style that includes more crossing to suit Benteke’s aerial prowess, we’ll see stronger movement up front. Until then the Reds may have to rely heavily on the little magician.
2. Weak preseason competition did not pay off
There was a lot of talk surrounding Liverpool’s preseason tour and the overall lack of quality in the competition. There’s no denying that it helped the new additions gel with the team but it led to the lack of quality that persisted against Stoke.
Jordon Ibe would essentially walk past defenders in the preseason, and although he was still lively today, he had a difficult time with Marc Muniesa on the wing. It’s worth adding that another fault of the preseason was the lack of togetherness.
Most of the defenders and midfielders played together on tour with Divock Origi and Danny Ings up top. Today they trotted out with Coutinho and Benteke followed by Firmino’s late introduction. Circumstances led to that (Copa America, late transfer moves) but perhaps Rodgers should have given his players more time to gel and trust in Origi or Ings to get it done. Nobody thought Stoke away was an easy three points but perhaps better preparation in the preseason would have helped Liverpool add a bit more sharpness to their game.
3. Central midfield needs sorting out
The preseason showed that Englishmen Jordan Henderson and James Milner can form a formidable duo in the central midfield. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see that duo completely in action until halfway through the second half.
The way Brendan Rodgers sent his side out included three attacking midfielders/wingers (Adam Lallana, Coutinho and Ibe). Milner and Henderson were reduced to more holding roles despite the fact that they are more of free-roaming, almost attacking midfielders.
It wasn’t until Rodgers intelligently brought on Emre Can for Lallana that we saw improvement in the attack. Coutinho moved wider, Can played a holding role and Henderson and Milner had more freedom, creating more chances and leading to the eventual goal from Coutinho. It’s understandable that Rodgers thought his initial lineup would help create opportunities, but the 4-3-3 they went to late seems much stronger than the 2-level midfield in the 4-2-3-1.
4. Shaky defense will get better, looks like improvement on last season
The obvious point to make here is that “at least they didn’t concede 6, right?” Regardless of May’s dismantling at the Britannia, I still think Liverpool’s defense is improved, especially on the flanks. New right back Nathaniel Clyne is a major improvement at the position, which is a notion that was definitely helped by Glen Johnson’s hilarious miss from 12 yards out early on in the match for Stoke.
Joe Gomez is young and at times naïve but he showed plenty of promise and ability at the left back (even though he is a natural left-footed centre back by trade).
Much will be made of the decision to leave Mamadou Sakho out of the squad today as Rodgers continues to favor Dejan Lovren. Transfer speculation will heat up, but on the pitch, the decision did not come back to haunt the manager.
Lovren showed his usual shakiness and was uncomfortable at times but still won many aerial battles and held his own for much of the match. Other than some ill-advised back passes to keeper Simon Mignolet, Martin Skrtel had a decent showing as well. The Liverpool back line seems to bend often, but will be fine as long as they don’t break.
5. Discipline could use some work
Many things are usually missing in the first match of the season. Touch, finishing and communication usually top that list. What surprised me today was Liverpool’s lack of discipline.
With some players they brought in they have increased their physicality. Skrtel and Lovren are tough in the back, Henderson and Milner exemplify the hard-nosed football England is known for and Christian Benteke is a colossus up front. It’s one thing to have size and strength, and it’s another to be silly.
There were too many silly challenges from Liverpool today, as four players picked up yellow cards. Luckily for the Reds the offenders shaped up and didn’t pick up a second. However, regardless of how controversial the issuing of yellow cards by referees can be the players need to be conscious and aware of their challenges. The last thing a team needs at this early stage in the season is a suspended player (cc: Thibaut Courtois, Jose Mourinho).
As is always the case at the beginning of the season, teams are going to need some work. Soon enough the attacking football Brendan Rodgers is hoping for will come. The sooner the better with Liverpool’s away fixtures at the beginning of this season, but results, no matter how ugly, are results. Rodgers and crew would take the same result over and over again if it meant three points. Despite the dreadfulness of today’s performance, a victory is a good way to get the season off-and-running for Liverpool.