That was the absolute worst possible response to last week's stomach punch. Liverpool never looked up for it – every player disappointed – and they meekly succumbed to a fortuitous goal from unimpressive opposition.
Liverpool's formation replicated that against Arsenal, but with Bellamy and Coates in place of Downing and Carra; Kuyt drifted behind Suarez, frequently switching with Henderson on the right, Bellamy stayed wide on the left, Adam and Spearing "held" in midfield. That and the result are the only similarities to last Saturday's fixture.
Aside from a threatening first 15 minutes from the home side, with two decent chances from set plays, Liverpool dominated possession. But did less than nothing with that possession, with three efforts on goal in the entire first half, only one of which caused Mignolet any trouble, and accidentally at that. It took until the 30th minute for Kuyt to get a tame header on target, while Suarez's run past O'Shea ended with Mignolet easily blocking a point-blank prod just before the interval. The most-dangerous was Adam's wind-aided free kick, which wasn't even a shot, misjudged but palmed over.
Liverpool were even worse after the interval, with no discernible changes to the dross we'd been treated to, and Sunderland finally made them pay just over ten minutes after the restart. Charging down to the other end after Spearing conceded an unnecessary free kick when trying to make amends in Sunderland's half, Campbell found space when easily turning away from Skrtel. His worm-burner shot bounced off the post, off Reina, and off the post again, sitting up perfectly for Bendtner as none of Liverpool's defenders thought it necessary to track the rebound. Fantastic. The woodwork finds new ways to torment.
Just as Liverpool never looked like scoring before Bendtner's opener, Liverpool never looked like replying in the 35 minutes after. Suarez and Adam wildly snatched at half-chances in the ten minutes following the game's lone goal, but that's about it. The three substitutes – Gerrard, Carroll, and Downing for Adam, Bellamy, and Henderson – did no better than the under-performers they replaced. O'Neill shifted to five midfielders with 15 minutes to play, and Sunderland easily soaked up Liverpool's pathetic possession.
Credit where due, Sunderland's tactics easily dealt with Liverpool, but Liverpool made it easy to deal with Liverpool. It's not especially difficult to work out how to beat this side. Close men down, don't allow midfielders – wide or central – time on the ball, and double-team Suarez. Wait for Liverpool to make the inevitable mistakes Liverpool inevitably makes, but rush them into sloppier play and poorer decisions than the usual sloppy play and poor decisions when certain players are on the ball.
There's no point in singling out scapegoats, no matter your favorites. And your favorite scapegoat was probably terrible today. Because Liverpool's starting XI were all terrible, the three subs were terrible, and the coaching staff was terrible. Adam did the usual awful Adam things, but Kuyt and Bellamy did nothing to support Suarez, Henderson was invisible in his best moments, Enrique and Kelly provide little support for to Liverpool's nonexistent attack, Spearing was rushed and undisciplined, the subs changed nothing, both Skrtel and Coates made mistakes, and Reina could have done better on the goal. Hurrah! Everyone sucks!
As much as it pains, the most fault lies with the manager and his staff. Liverpool went through the motions, and sloppily at that. It reminded of the final two matches last season, where Liverpool meandered through losses against Tottenham and Villa knowing that Champions League qualification was finally mathematically impossible. Whatever Dalglish said to the side, either tactically or for motivation, didn't lead to tactical superiority or motivate the players in the slightest. Only 1-3 at Bolton was as comprehensive a failure, and we had more excuses for that abortion.
Maybe Liverpool were looking ahead to the next two fixtures, against Everton then the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. That's not much of a consolation, and success in either – as unlikely that looks on today's performance – won't wash away this stain. This is the first time Liverpool have lost three successive matches since Houllier's last season. Liverpool have won just one league fixture since the New Year – at relegation-threatened Wolves not long before McCarthy's dismissal – with two draws and five losses in the others. Somewhere, Hodgson sits a dark, poorly-decorated room and laughs while waiting to be offered the England job.
I maintain what I wrote over the week, that Liverpool need to continue with the summer signings and usual starters to at least give the chance of coming good in the future, but today's disaster makes that look even shakier logic. I'm as tempted as most to scream 'kill them all, painfully if possible, and just play the reserves' simply because today was so pathetic. But that's little help in the long-term. Liverpool need these players to come good; the club's not making seven new signings this summer.
The players need to perform and the manager needs to manage. It's that simple because it's a simple bloody sport. Sunderland showed how little more than commitment and one or two lucky bounces are enough to win games. For whatever reason or reasons, Liverpool have absolutely none of that self-belief. Which is the minimum expected.