For once, Liverpool aren't left ruing a lack of goals, after again scoring just one for the seventh time in 15 league matches this season. It's just the second 1-0 win in those seven matches, drawing three and losing two others.
I will do my best to not go totally overboard, but that defensive improvement can be laid almost wholly at the feet of the returning Lucas Leiva. Seven successful tackles out of eight attempted – just one fewer than the rest of the side combined – four successful aerial duels, and even the four fouls committed demonstrate his effectiveness as defensive shield. 88 attempted passes (76 successful, 86% accuracy) are evidence of his importance in starting the attack – 23 more than the next closest Liverpool player (Agger with 65) – and his presence allowed both Gerrard and Allen much more freedom than each has had in his absence. His positioning and acceleration were below par, obvious effects of his long layoff, but otherwise, his return saw an immediate upgrade in Liverpool's form and formation.
Predictably, Liverpool's struggles remain all too obvious at the other end of the pitch. Once again, Liverpool could and should have scored many more. Liverpool, as expected, were all over Southampton from the opening whistle, with chance after chance after chance spurned. Suarez was central to everything, Johnson and Enrique – the latter back in his usual full-back position but with little drop-off in attacking threat – bombed forward at will, and Gerrard was much more potent higher up the pitch, creating all of his five chances in the first half.
But until Agger's header after Liverpool regrouped from a free kick off the bar, it looked as if Liverpool would reap no reward for its dominance. Again. Johnson and Gerrard shot wide from excellent positions; Shelvey (twice), Johnson, and Suarez had tame shots easily saved; both Shelvey and Suarez smacked efforts off the woodwork. Those woodwork strikes – the latter just before Liverpool finally scored – brought back bad memories of 0-0s against Stoke and Swansea, the last times Liverpool hit the frame, but the second started the move which led to the opener. Suarez's free kick cannoned off the crossbar with Gazzaniga stranded, Johnson picked up possession, shifted into space onto his weaker foot, and delivered a perfect cross for Agger, still in the danger area, to head in front of Fonte.
Southampton's threat – or, more accurately, Liverpool's near-permanent precariousness – was demonstrated just before the interval, when Lambert's audacious shot from more than 40 yards out nearly wrong-footed Reina. But that incredibly speculative, if dangerous, effort was also the Saints' best chance of the match. Thanks to improvement in defense (read: thanks to Lucas), Liverpool never looked like conceding, even during the inevitable 15-or-so-minute spell when Southampton was on top in the second half. Enrique and Agger made crucial blocks, Ramirez failed to get close to the target with a long-range shot, and that was pretty much it.
That Liverpool didn't extend its lead in last 30 minutes is a clear cause of regret, if an unsurprising occurrence. What was infuriating was Liverpool bungling multiple opportunities on the break, spilling forward when Southampton sent men in search of an equalizer but somehow contriving to screw up the advantage. Guilty of overplaying, guilty of making the wrong decision, guilty of mis-controlling what appeared an easy pass. It was all there, no matter the personnel involved. Henderson was an effective substitution, on for Allen in the 69th, in aiding Liverpool's pressing from the front and work-rate – especially given Allen's fatigue in the last few matches – but was insipid when counter-attacking. You'd expect far better, especially given the speed of both Suarez and Sterling.
Still, Liverpool finished the better, more threatening side, as the home side somehow contrived to screw up a scramble in the box after excellent build-up; Enrique had a rocket well-saved with Suarez narrowly unable to reach the rebound; Suarez fired a shot wide; and Sterling made consecutive bad decisions on a quick counter in injury time. All in the last ten minutes. Unfortunately, that first opportunity, the goalmouth scramble, saw Suarez pick up his fifth booking of the season for an unnecessary handball. He'll now miss next Sunday's match at West Ham, with Shelvey most likely to play in a false nine role.
Liverpool's lack of goals are news to no one, and other than aberrations like 5-2 Norwich, it'll continue until January at the least, and probably longer. Sterling and Shelvey switched flanks constantly in the wide positions, but other than Shelvey's missile off the post, neither presented much goal threat. For all of Suarez's tornado dribbling and threat when at the byline, just one of his five shots were on-target.
Nonetheless, today should be cause for celebration. Not only are narrow wins just as valuable, if not more so, than rampaging wins, but Lucas' return should mark a noticeable upturn in Liverpool's fortunes. The defense was far more comfortable, the midfield far more cohesive. Agger and Skrtel were better protected and Liverpool's flanks, an area where many of the goals conceded have come from, were infinitely more secure with Lucas comfortable charging from side to side to reinforce when fullbacks are caught up field. Gerrard clearly felt more able to get into the penalty box with Lucas holding the middle, less likely to drop deeper and demand possession or hesitate to join the attack. Allen did similar, and will become more potent as this role – his preferred role – becomes more familiar.
Yes, it's a narrow 1-0 win at Anfield against a newly-promoted side currently in the relegation zone. La di dah. A side that had been averaging more than two goals conceded per game. But it's a win against a side that's scored more goals than Liverpool this season, and just the fourth clean sheet of the campaign. It's the first time Liverpool have won back-to-back matches at Anfield since August/September 2011. All of 16 months ago.
It's a win. Period.