When Liverpool win with a brilliant, unfathomable goal after creating very little from open play, when Liverpool's opponent hit the woodwork and miss chance after chance, we probably shouldn't complain. I doubt it need remind it was the absolute opposite last season, all season long.
It'd be a lot easier to look at this like another preseason match, and forgive its sins, if there weren't so much riding on Liverpool qualifying for the Europa League. Because that's pretty much what it was. A preseason match against wholly unfamiliar, currently in the middle of their season, opposition. Liverpool started more first-team regulars than during the US tour, but most of those regulars have hardly if ever played under Rodgers. It may as well still be preseason for the likes of Gerrard, Borini, Henderson, Johnson, Downing, Kelly, and Lucas.
Still, it was hard to be forgiving until Downing's thunderbolt in the 67th minute. Goals have a tendency to do that. Both sides started tentatively, with Liverpool looking marginally competent and threatening on two set play chances from Borini and Johnson, but between those two chances Joe Cole managed to injure his hamstring just 14 minutes into the match, replaced by Raheem Sterling. Which surprisingly marked the beginning of Gomel's ascendancy, whether due to the home side settling into the match or the substitution unsettling Liverpool's plan.
From there, it was increasingly Gomel, all Gomel. The home side took 12 shots in the first half – twelve! – compared to Liverpool's two, but only tested Jones a couple of times. Gomel's complete inability to find the target – usually lone striker Alumona, who caused Skrtel all sorts of problems – was the only thing that kept Liverpool in the match. Liverpool unsurprisingly had more possession, but it was mostly tame possession in their own half: starting with Spearing dawdling on the ball, allowing Gomel to diligently retreat into position, ending with a hit-and-hope long range pass towards Sterling. Neither Sterling nor Downing gave Borini any support, and Liverpool's lack of competence on the flanks made it necessary for both Enrique and Johnson to take risks in order to bolster the attack. Which led to Gomel counter-attack breakaways when Liverpool inevitably lost possession. Alumona was a burly, impressive handful on the counter, but thankfully hopeless in front of goal.
Liverpool were marginally better after the interval, but again reliant on set plays for creating chances; Gerrard's blistered free kick nearly ended with an own goal, followed by Skrtel heading wide from the resulting corner. But soon after, Gomel again had an unbelievable opportunity – three opportunities, in fact – to open the scoring. Spearing passed directly to a Gomel player after Liverpool won possession, then overplayed his man trying to get the ball back, allowing holding midfielder Kazeka to stride forward and unleash a cannonball that fortunately found only the post. Alumona shanked the rebound, which fortuitously fell to Platonov, who could just shoot wide from 10 yards with the goal gaping and four Liverpool defenders standing with hands on head or hips wondering how the hell that all just happened.
Lucas immediately replaced Henderson, a substitution already in the works before Gomel's fruitless flurry. And that was the turning point. Instantaneously, Liverpool's back four were more secure. As during the run-in for the 2010-11 season, Spearing looked far more comfortable when paired with the Brazilian safety net, not relied upon to make all the tackles and keep his position.
Sure, Lucas had nothing to do with the goal scored just two minutes later, but I'll credit that to his entrance as well just because. Gerrard's long-range cross-field pass, another attempt to catch Gomel out of position before they locked the door, didn't find its mark, but the clearing header fell directly to an open Downing, who took one stride inside, switched the ball onto his favored left-foot, and unleashed a swerving missile which gave Bushma absolutely no chance. The sort of shot he frequently smacked against the woodwork last season, and after he had been unconscionably dire for 67 minutes. Football, eh?
From there, Gomel had to chase to get back into the game, and Liverpool were able to stick fingers in the dike and pack the defense, another facet aided by Lucas' entrance. Now Gerrard, further forward, was more of a threat. Now Sterling found more space against Gomel's right back. Now Liverpool's full-backs could focus on defending. The home side had just one chance in the last 25 minutes, hopeful from distance from Alumona, again wide of goal. Liverpool nearly added a second on the counter in injury time when Kelly's through ball sprung an onside Borini, but Bushma did well to push him wide and block the shot-slash-cross.
Yes, today's match laid some of Liverpool's failings incredibly bare. The flanks, so crucial in the 4-3-3 and whether manned by Downing, Sterling, or Cole, were especially terrible, leading to Borini isolated all too often. Liverpool's almost lazy possession play allowed an organized side to get back into position, forcing far too many long balls from Gerrard, Henderson, or Spearing in the hopes of finding an opening. And there were gaps in Liverpool's defense when Gomel countered at pace. But Rodgers' style of play was never going to sink in overnight; this was and remains a long-term project, to our eminent frustration. Also, Liverpool still won.
Individually, Lucas undoubtedly made a drastic difference. No matter the lack of service, Borini's movement and work-rate were excellent in both attack and defense. Despite a couple of frightening moments, Jones made every save he needed to, and Carragher, in his 700th appearance, was easily Liverpool's best starter. The central midfield was another worry, but Henderson and Gerrard have hardly played so far and I'm fairly sure it'll look better with different combinations, whether because of Lucas or because Joe Allen signs or simply because Henderson and Gerrard become more familiar with each other's movement.
Liverpool assuredly need to improve tactically and in personnel – both with returning players and new purchases. But, as hard as it is to remember, it is still August 2. It may have been an unlikely goal from an unlikely scorer, but we didn't see either of those things anywhere near enough last season. And that Liverpool got the win and needed away goal no matter the lack of preseason matches, no matter the key players missing, is all that truly matters.