Another typical match against Stoke. Another typical match from Lee Mason. And another all-too-typical match from Liverpool.
It gets boring to say Stoke are Stoke are Stoke, but Stoke were so very Stoke and Mason let them get away with it. Liverpool played into their hands in the first half, and couldn't convert its chances in a marginally-improved second half.
Robert Huth set the tone early on, stamping on Suarez's chest after less than five minutes. Mason called nothing, not the initial foul, and not the stamp, leading to a Stoke chance that thankfully went begging when Kightly's vicious cross just eluded Crouch, Walters, and Adam.
Liverpool completely failed to come to grips with Stoke's physicality, and the away side were on top for the first 20 minutes, taking four of their six shots in total – including both of their shots in target – in the opening quarter of the game. And both of those shots on target started from Liverpool mistakes. Şahin gave a goal kick straight to Charlie Adam in the 5th; luckily, Reina was quick off his line to deny him any space or angle. 15 minutes later, Reina passed the ball directly to N'Zonzi, but redeemed himself by tipping Kightly's shot over the crossbar.
After that opening 20 minutes, Liverpool stopped committing seppuku, but still weren't clicking. Gerrard finally forced Begovic into a save after 27 minutes – waist-high from distance, easily parried behind – swiftly followed by the first of four woodwork strikes: Agger's toe-poke from Suso's chip clipping the outside of the post. Otherwise, the half stayed in the same vein, with Liverpool unable to breach Stoke's determined defense or standard savagery, although at least Mason started showing cards. That Liverpool finished the half with just 77% pass accuracy demonstrates how Stoke controlled the tenor and tempo: Liverpool became impatient, were too direct, something Stoke encouraged and easily dealt with. It is the antithesis of Rodgers' preferred style. And Gerrard was the worst culprit: 59 completed of 81 passes after 90 minutes, 0 for 8 on crosses, giving the ball away 36 times in total. As Gerrard and Suarez go, so goes Liverpool.
Rodgers clearly had harsh words at halftime, as Liverpool at least reverted to more cohesive patient passing. Johnson's runs from deep led to two quick chances: the first saved by Begovic, the second ballooned over, unable to take Gerrard's outstanding long pass in stride. After Agger wonderfully intercepted a low Stoke cross on a counter-attack, saving a probable goal – the type of goal Liverpool have conceded all too often – the away side were pushed deeper and deeper, rarely exiting their own half for the rest of the match.
However, Stoke are usually content to sit deeper and deeper, defending strongly throughout. And as has happened all too often, Liverpool's finishing let them down. Liverpool created chances – sure, they should have created more – but chances came. Suarez shot narrowly wide after a jaw-dropping run through the entire Stoke defense, Sterling hit the near post after Agger's chipped cross fell to him, Suarez hit the near post when shooting from no angle at the byline, and Skrtel hit the far post in injury time after getting on the end of Joe Cole's lofted hoof. Sensing a trend here? And you thought that Liverpool were over the woodwork woes. Ha.
Also, yeah, I actually wrote Joe Cole's name in that last paragraph. Which is a helpful segue into questioning Liverpool's substitutions in addition to the questions over Liverpool's tactics and preparation. Cole was first off the bench, replacing Suso in the 67th minute. Not Borini. Not Assaidi. Not Downing, completely left out again, as against United. But Joe Cole. 10 minutes later, Assaidi replaced Şahin, shifting Cole into his "preferred" position behind the central striker, mostly because Cole made absolutely no impact on the flank, unable to get on the ball. He wasn't able to do much more in the middle, in a position where Liverpool needs more mobility, more intelligence, and more creativity to link the attacking play. Liverpool badly missed Jonjo Shelvey in this match, and as a helpful bonus, he could have made any type of tackle he wanted given the way that Mason refereed. It's no coincidence that's Liverpool's last two chances were self-created by Suarez and then from a set play – even if Cole played the pass for Skrtel's shot.
At the same time, Tony Pulis learned from previous mistakes with his substitutions. This match looked an awful lot like Stoke's 0-1 loss at Chelsea a couple of weeks back. At Stamford Bridge, Pulis replaced Adam with Michael Owen not long after the hour mark, sensing that he might be able to sneak a win away from home. Unable to stop Chelsea as effectively with one fewer midfielder and finally tiring after an entire match of concerted home side pressure, Chelsea finally snuck a winner in the 85th. Pulis was not going to make that error again, replacing Kightly with Etherington in a straight swap just after the hour mark, then defensive midfielder Edu for Charlie Adam with 10 minutes to play.
Unsurprisingly given the scoreline, Liverpool's defense was very good, Liverpool's midfield and attack much less so. All four defenders were superlative – if picking a man of the match, which I'm not inclined to do after that result, it's one of those four. Johnson has become a much better left back than right back; playing on that side requires him to pick and choose his spots going forward, less likely to leave gaps in defense when bombing ahead without reserve. Wisdom was tidy and intelligent in position. Skrtel and Agger coped manfully with Crouch and Walters' aerial presence, and were also on the end of two of Liverpool's best chances.
But it all broke down in Stoke's half all too often. Gerrard was headstrong, impatient, and egregiously wasteful. Suso and Şahin were bullied out of the game too easily, the most harried by Stoke's tactics, which is why those were the two subbed off. Sterling had little success running at Cameron or Wilson, although he showed some surprising strength and tracked back excellently: just 3 of 9 successful dribbles, but 4 of 4 with his tackles. And Suarez worked hard, nearly creating a goal from nothing twice, but (as feared and expected) nowhere near at potent with his finishing, also hindered by Mason's willingness to let Huth and Shawcross mimic pro wrestling villains. All that was missing were a few steel chairs and maybe some salt thrown in Suarez's eyes.
So, Liverpool have finally kept a clean sheet in the league, but Liverpool are still winless at Anfield after four league matches. Back-to-back 0-0s at home against Stoke, the fourth time this fixture has ended at that scoreline in the nine league meetings since Stoke were promoted. All the recent problems in defense rectified, all the familiar failures in attack returning. One of these days, Liverpool will make both facets work, but that day can't come soon enough.