Somehow, that was more demoralizing than the 0-3 loss at West Brom, despite the quality of the opposition and the slightly less embarrassing scoreline.
There were excuses for that first loss, most stemming from the red card. But this script becomes more painful the more we're subjected to the same film. Liverpool were deservedly beaten, horribly impotent and utterly clueless in the final third, and Liverpool conceded from a Gerrard giveaway and a Reina mistake. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
That's not to downplay how well Arsenal played. More specifically, how well Arsenal defended. Jenkinson did outstandingly against Sterling, Vermaelen was Vermaelen, and Podolski and Oxlade-Chamberlain tracked back brilliantly. Aside from one early moment, Suarez couldn't even test Mertesacker, never finding space to run at the slow defender because of his poor control and decision-making and Arsenal defending in numbers.
It was all so terribly predictable. Arsenal's short passing and strong defense – in addition to Liverpool's much-noted attacking impotence – prevented the home side from taking advantage of the edge in possession and decent start to the match. Then Arsenal struck on the counter, as Arsenal loves to do, beginning with yet another Gerrard giveaway, the third consecutive league match where a bad decision errant pass is severely punished. And there have only been three league matches.
Gerrard leads Suarez too far, his only option, with Suarez encircled by three defenders. Vermaelen easily intercepts, and immediately finds Podolski just outside the center circle. Liverpool are carved wide open, Podolski's pass splitting Şahin and Allen, both stepping forward to the halfway line, neither covering as a holding midfielder. Cazorla runs 30 yards before Enrique comes close to catching up, then returns the ball to Podolski, who had sprinted past Johnson even though the defender had a head start. The right back's unable to block the shot, Reina's unable to stop it, one-nil to the Arsenal.
Liverpool tried to make amends, both before and after the interval, but kept doing the same things. Gerrard and Suarez continued to misfire, Sterling couldn't find any space because of Arsenal's good work, and Borini was utterly invisible. Webb ignored three penalty shouts – one correctly, one arguably, and one insanely, as Webb is prone to do – but Arsenal remained the more dangerous, and nearly punished Liverpool on the counter twice more. Giroud wildly misfired after an excellent run from Diaby carved open Liverpool's tender belly yet again just before halftime, Reina made an excellent save on Gibbs' near post shot not long after the restart.
Liverpool improved after Downing replaced the hopeless Borini in the 54th minute, but still couldn't penetrate the Arsenal defense: Suarez had a shot tipped over, Downing had one blocked after a clever run then couldn't direct a header on target from Sterling's clever cross.
And then Arsenal struck again, a flawless passing move that diced through Liverpool's defense: Diaby to Podolski to Diaby to Cazorla to Podolski to Cazorla, with Shelvey (on a minute before as a substitute) unable to close down when chasing like a dog after a tennis ball and everyone else standing off. But Reina should have easily parried Cazorla's near post blast, once again letting a goal slip through his fingers. Less culpability than the Hearts' calamity because of the ferocity of Cazorla's shot, freely sprinting between Downing and Johnson, but still fairly unforgivable.
Arsenal simply had to sit back to prevent a Liverpool consolation, and despite Suarez's chip over and a couple of Shelvey shots saved, a consolation rarely looked on the cards, nevermind the needed two. Giroud probably had the best chance of the last 20 minutes, a free header from a corner with Downing lazy and Skrtel static, but ballooned the opportunity.
And with Liverpool suffering in attack, what did Rodgers have on his bench? A goalkeeper, three defenders, two central midfielders, and Stewart Downing. And Downing had replaced Borini (who really was indescribably bad today, once again not helped by playing on the right) early in the second half; Liverpool had no options once going behind by two. There's a reason everyone went insane when deadline day ended without new signings. The furor will most likely get louder before the situation gets better.
Once again, Liverpool lose when Gerrard and Suarez underperform, the former more inexcusably than the latter. Once again, only Joe Allen comes away with any credit, although Sterling had his moments and Shelvey did well off the bench. That's right, a 17-year-old making his second league start was Liverpool's best attacker. Liverpool's total lack of depth means that he's going to have to repeat that type of performance often. Far more often than he should have to do.
And, sadly, so much for not missing Lucas. Şahin looked off the pace, inoffensive but unthreatening, clearly needing match fitness. Allen may have played well, but he's not a defensive midfielder, not in a match like this. He completed one tackle and made three interceptions, Şahin two tackles and no interceptions. Arsenal made nine more tackles and six more interceptions than Liverpool. One match is not proof, especially Şahin's first match, but this doesn't appear to be a pairing capable of stopping the strongest sides; both want to press, neither are an effective shield for the back four, all too painfully evident on Arsenal's opening goal. Nine of Liverpool's 17 successful tackles were in Arsenal's half. All six of Liverpool's unsuccessful tackles came in their own half.
Still, the most blame for Liverpool's broken midfield lies with Liverpool's captain. Only Borini and Suarez had a worse pass completion percentage, and his giveaways somehow continue to punish Liverpool in the harshest possible manner. Once Liverpool went behind, he played more as an out-and-out attacker, almost a 4-4-1-1 formation at times in the second half, creating chances – five of Liverpool's 15 in total – but had next to no combination with the other two midfielders and did the typical "well, I just need to make longer, more ambitious passes" decision which infuriates more than it helps. And he, along with the front three, is supposed to be Liverpool's first line of defense. That line of defense did not perform well today despite those nine tackles; Diaby and Arteta – neither a defensive midfielder in their own right – were allowed to boss the game, especially Diaby. This match only strengthened the argument that Liverpool might be best served by playing Gerrard in the front three. And as against West Brom, most infuriating was his seeming indifference once Liverpool went two behind.
Now, with one point from nine, Liverpool have fulfilled all our fears, unable to come to terms with the difficult start. And now, instead of being able to regroup, the majority of players will go away for the international break. The schedule doesn't soften once players return, traveling to Sunderland before facing United, with the added bonus of Europa League and League Cup matches to test the thin squad.
We worried that it'd get worse before it got better, having to start from the ground floor against strong opposition. But we didn't expect it to be this much worse, with so many of last season's faults somehow amplified and little improvement in almost every area.