Smith 2' 45+3'
Look at that front four. Look at it. It looks glorious, doesn't it? Three strikers, plus Sterling. Borini, Sturridge, and Suarez all start, Arsenal on Wednesday be damned. Oldham didn't stand a chance.
What? Oh, right. Midfield and defense matter too, huh? Well, shit.
That was a new low.
Oldham set a marker within 15 seconds when Robbie Simpson stamped on Joe Allen's ankle. Lee Probert also set a marker by not even considering a yellow card for the foul. There will be lots and lots of complaining about the referee to come, but make no mistake, Liverpool's performance merited absolutely nothing from this match.
Once again, this side simply cannot cope with physical, pressing, foul-happy opposition. And it has been an on-going issue all season long. Both matches against Stoke, especially at the Britannia. The loss to an Aston Villa side which hasn't won any of its subsequent league matches and went out of both cup competitions. The last 20 minutes against Mansfield. Liverpool are wholly unable to handle burly strikers; Matt Smith, playing non-league football less than two years ago, is just added to the list already containing Long, Lukaku, Kenwyne Jones, Jon Walters, Lacina Traore, Benteke, Carlton Cole, and probably a few others that I've repressed. And now this. It's not getting better. It just gets worse.
Let's just get all the referee fun out of the way. Coates was clearly fouled by Smith for the opener. Suarez pulled a goal back but had a potential go-ahead second debatably chalked off. Oldham's second, in that crucial period just before halftime, came from Jones' horrific mistake but started when Probert ignored a clear foul on Sturridge. Sterling should have won a penalty in the 54th, clipped by Winchester, unsurprisingly not given. Oldham got away with foul after foul after foul; the magic of the FA Cup: not penalizing lower league teams at home because they're lower league teams at home. Maybe it takes chutzpah to criticize refereeing after the way Liverpool won at Mansfield, but I've never made any pretense about being unbiased.
All that said, Liverpool's defense was abhorrent, Liverpool's midfield nonexistent. Sure, we were all drooling about seeing that front four in action going into the match, but in retrospect, starting with a little more strength in the middle of the park against a side comprised wholly of headers, elbows, and studs maybe might have been cleverer. It's a lot easier to make those declarations in retrospect.
After that early foul on Allen, Oldham pinned Liverpool inside their own half, taking advantage of Henderson and Allen's inability to get a foot on the ball, Coates' evidently still-drunk hangover, and Robinson and Wisdom's naivety. The goal came within two minutes when Liverpool couldn't clear a ball into the box, no one challenged M'Changama on Liverpool's right, and Smith climbed all over a static Coates to win the point-blank header.
Oldham continued in this vein for the first 15 minutes, with Liverpool lucky not to concede a second after Jones spilled Croft's shot (taking a studs-up kick in the chest from Simpson for his trouble – a foul that should have been Simpson's second yellow) followed by Baxter shooting narrowly wide from the top of the box.
Then Suarez singlehandedly struck, charging at Oldham's defense, playing a one-two with an Oldham defender who intercepted an attempted pass to Sturridge, slotting past Bouzanis. Liverpool could, should have had a second when Suarez appeared level on Henderson's 24th-minute free kick, barely getting a touch to deflect it in, but the linesman flagged. Sterling's tame left-footed shot at Bouzanis five minutes later marked the end of Liverpool's first of two decent spells, unable to score on what was Liverpool's best move of the match, highlighted by Borini's wonderful back heel to put the winger through on goal.
You'd expect Liverpool to assert dominance after canceling out Oldham's opener – which is exactly what happened when these sides met in this competition last season – but no such luck. All the initial problems remained. That massive gap between attack and defense you see in the above formation diagram was still a massive, debilitating gap. Baxter continued to find space between Liverpool's midfield and attack, driving Oldham forward against an over-matched Henderson and Allen. Both Baxter and Simpson put efforts just past the post from the space between Liverpool's midfield and defense.
Liverpool cruised past Oldham a year ago by scoring just before the interval, with Gerrard's penalty sealing the Latics' fate. Today, Oldham struck at that crucial time, again from Smith, and again through Probert ignoring a clear foul coupled with a jaw-dropping Liverpool mistake. Brad Jones has no excuse for spilling Wabara's tame, low cross. None. But he did, Croft reacted first to tap it towards Smith, and Smith tapped it into the net. Two goals, from a combined three yards out.
Maybe it's all different if Liverpool level almost immediately after the restart, charging down the left flank, Robinson with a perfect cross for Borini to slam home. He put the clear-cut chance wide of the near post. Two minutes later, Wabara put Oldham 3-1 up, a lead they'd never relinquish. Oldham had two chances for 4-1 before Rodgers could respond: another Baxter shot not far off and M'voto out-jumping Wisdom but heading wide.
Then came the cavalry: Gerrard and Downing for Borini and Wisdom, with Henderson shifting to right back. And then came incoherent Liverpool attack after incoherent Liverpool attack, a 30-minute "onslaught." Shelvey replaced Sterling soon after, but the tactics were clear. Throw as many attackers against the wall and hope something sticks. Something finally stuck, but that Liverpool got it within one in the 80th minute was as lucky as it was deserved. Liverpool had yet another corner cleared, but Allen's blast back in, albeit on-target, needed a wicked deflection off Baxter to find the back of the net. And until Allen's goal, Oldham actually had the best chance during this spell, as Simpson poked wide not realizing how much time he had after Smith flicked on Bouzanis' hoofed goal kick.
Gerrard crashed a shot against the crossbar in the 90th minute – the woodwork has been far quieter this season, but unsurprisingly reared its head at the worst possible time – but otherwise, all sound and fury signifying nothing. There was no pattern to Liverpool's play, no patient build-up, no intelligence or control, just hoof, hope, pray, and fail. Even in defeat, it's not what we've come to expect from Rodgers' side.
And now, Suarez, Sturridge, Henderson, Allen, and Wisdom have played a full frantic 90 minutes three days before a trip to Arsenal, with Gerrard also needed for 35 minutes off the bench. I'm not having that Liverpool looked past Oldham, expecting an easy match, ahead to Arsenal. Liverpool simply couldn't cope with Oldham's strength or desire. That would be the Oldham who are in 19th place in League One, who don't have the money to afford a first-team coach or a fourth stand for their ground. Rodgers' tactics were worryingly naive; maybe it's different with Lucas and Gerrard in midfield, but that was an inauspicious start for the Borini-Sturridge-Suarez-Sterling front four. Once again, it was an if-not-Suarez-and-Gerrard-than-no-one match, and it wasn't nearly enough today.
For each's promise, that wasn't a match for a Henderson-Allen midfield, while Coates, Wisdom, and Robinson all demonstrated just how inexperienced they are. However, I'm more disappointed in Liverpool's veterans: Skrtel once again looked lost without Agger, unable to cope with the 6'6" Smith, while Jones made a complete hash of Oldham's second (among other errors, both in claiming and distribution). You can forgive defensive errors made by 20, 19, and 18-year-olds. But it's unforgivable from proven veterans aged 28 and 30.
Each of Liverpool's dismal losses in the last month – against Villa, at Stoke, at United – has been followed by a supremely impressive reaction. But those reactions took place against Fulham, QPR, and Norwich. Arsenal, at Arsenal, will be a much more difficult – and vastly more important – proposition.