Short version: No Sturridge, no party.
Slightly longer version: Once again, optimism is a dangerous thing. And once again, Rodgers doesn't seem to have learned from the season's earlier trials and tribulations.
Daniel Sturridge has made an immediate impact, far more than I thought or even hoped possible. But the second he's unavailable, Liverpool reverted to the sterility we saw all too often over the first few months. And once again, Rodgers tries to fix Liverpool with half measures. Henderson remained on the left, ostensibly playing two positions at the same time, but Suarez moved back up front with Shelvey supposedly a #10. And it absolutely demolished any coherency in the final third.
Sure, had Shelvey somehow stayed onside in the ninth minute before prodding in the rebound, had Agger not missed a point-blank free header in the 33rd, Liverpool might have strolled to victory. Like against Wigan, given how deep the opposition were defending, if Liverpool scored the first to open the game, Liverpool could well have scored three.
But they did not score the first. Not in the first half, piling shot after shot at West Brom. Not after Rodgers made changes, not when Foster made a brilliant save on Gerrard's blast then Borini pushed the rebound into the side netting rather than the open goal in the 71st, and not even after Liverpool won the softest penalty I've seen in ages, for an Olsson push on Suarez in the 77th. Which Foster again somehow saved, the fourth consecutive penalty Liverpool have missed at Anfield, a 22-month long streak.
As the clock struck the 80th minute, Liverpool had attempted 23 shots, with seven on target. West Brom had taken one, a 48th-minute Brunt effort blocked before it came within five yards of Liverpool's penalty box. The first opposition shot on target was Mulumbu's rocket on the break in the 80th minute, which Reina had to tip wide. From the subsequent corner, West Brom took the comically inevitable lead when McAuley lost Agger for a free header, in unappealing contrast to Agger missing a free header 50 minutes earlier.
And that was game over. 23 shots in the first 80 minutes when trying to break the deadlock, just two blocked efforts in the final 15 after going behind. Lukaku added a second in injury time, again on a counter-attack and again thanks to an Agger misstep, caught on the back foot when the striker shifted direction and then tore by him to crash a shot past Reina. Further dirt piled upon a deserved grave. Because Liverpool don't concede just once anymore.
After underwhelming for nearly an hour, Liverpool had needed to make changes, but the changes invite even more criticism of Rodgers. Borini for the again-disappointing Shelvey, whose final third movement was atrocious and contributed little besides the offside goal, was a no-brainer, even if Borini was also disappointing. But Sterling for Henderson at the same time raised eyebrows; Henderson had done well, always pressing, getting into good attacking positions, and unlucky not to score when Foster saved his audacious back heel in the 52nd. It really doesn't make sense unless Rodgers is resting him for the trip to St. Petersburg on Thursday. Sterling tried, because Sterling's a trier, but found next to no space behind Albion's packed defense.
But the third, later substitution was the most quizzical. It's unfair on Coutinho, but it was a desperate substitution, evidence of nothing more than Rodgers' hope that Liverpool's shiny new toy would blunt criticism were the match to end 0-0. Well, it didn't end 0-0. And to that point, Downing had actually been one of Liverpool's best players, one of Liverpool's few performing players. Again, it's unfair on Coutinho, almost certainly not ready to contribute, but the sum of his contributions was an off-target shot which should have seen a second penalty given for handball, yet a second penalty was never going to be given. And Liverpool were already down by two at that point. By no means am I blaming the young Brazilian for this result; even I'm not that reactionary or cruel. I am, however, glaring angrily in Rodgers' direction both for subjecting him to that as well as taking off Downing, which is a phrase I'm surprised to write.
However, almost every player – aside from Henderson, Downing, Lucas, and arguably Carragher and Reina – disappointed as well. Gerrard had flashes, but didn't have the permanent influence demonstrated against Arsenal and City, as well as missing the penalty. Suarez ran nonstop, as Suarez does, but was again wholly wasteful, failing to hit the target with all seven of his shots. Enrique and Johnson, constantly in space because of West Brom's incredibly deep defense, created just one chance between them – Johnson's low cross leading to that Henderson back heel – with the two completing just 66% of their final third passes. From the "highs" against Arsenal and City to this. The only consistency is inconsistency.
What Zonal Marking wrote about two months ago is exactly what West Brom did today. Soak up Liverpool pressure for those 80 minutes, partly thanks to Liverpool's profligacy and partly due to determined defending and surprisingly good goal-keeping, then two sucker-punches in the last 10 minutes aided by Agger's mistakes. Which, incidentally, is pretty similar to how West Brom won the reverse fixture, although Gera's almost-accidental wonder-strike just before halftime opened up Liverpool to errors, penalties, and red cards earlier than today's horror show.
Yes, yes, once again, Liverpool fails to beat a side currently in the top 10. More infuriatingly, that's West Brom 5, Liverpool 0 in this season's two fixtures, the first time Albion have done the double over Liverpool since 1966-67. West Brom's first league win since Boxing Day. West Brom's first away clean sheet of the campaign. And that it was done by Liverpool's former assistant manager makes it all the more painful.
This result makes it slightly harder to argue that Aston Villa was an aberration. Liverpool's personnel was different, the opposition formation was different, and the final score was different, but the end result is all too familiar. West Brom may be higher up the table, but they were almost as dismal as Villa in the matches leading up to an Anfield visit. Liverpool lost a home match that they had no business losing, to a team that had been rooted to the bottom of the form table, because they were disjointed and wasteful in the final third and made idiotic errors in defense.
There's a breaking point where these stomach punches stop being coincidence. We might have just reached it.