Evidently, there are still no turning points. Liverpool simply refuse to stop taking lots and lots of steps backwards after one or two steps forward.
What seemed a massively important 3-2 comeback win followed by a debilitating, deserved loss to supposedly inferior opposition. It happened against Aston Villa after the victory at West Ham, and now it's happened at Southampton after the joyous win against Tottenham.
No Reina and Carragher meant there was no vocal organizer in defense, complemented by Skrtel's complete lack of confidence. No Lucas meant Southampton's fluid attacking line of three had the freedom of Liverpool's defensive third, with neither Gerrard nor Allen able to replicate the Brazilian's holding abilities.
It has been four months since Liverpool have conceded just one goal when conceding in a league match: November 11, a 1-1 draw at Chelsea. Since then, 10 clean sheets, but two allowed at Tottenham, two at West Ham, three against Villa, three at Stoke, two at United, two at Arsenal, two at City, two against West Brom, two against Tottenham, and now three more at Southampton. When it rains, it monsoons.
Liverpool had made a habit of storming out of the blocks in its recent wins, scoring early on against Norwich, Swansea, Wigan, and Tottenham (as well as Arsenal and City). But Southampton did exactly that to Liverpool today, as the away side were almost totally unable to clear the ball, let alone keep possession. Within six minutes, the home side were ahead after Lambert held up play well from a long ball out of Southampton's half before laying off to Ramirez. His deep cross found Rodriguez at the far post, eluding Johnson all too easily, knocking down for Schneiderlin to poke past Jones, with Skrtel unable to beat the midfielder to the ball and with both Gerrard and Allen ignoring the midfielder's burst into the box.
Schneiderlin's goal was the earliest Liverpool have allowed in the league this season, a minute before Lennon's for Tottenham at the end of November. Despite the more recent painful memories against Villa, Stoke, and West Brom, that Tottenham match was the closest parallel to today's set-back – at least until Rodriguez's game-sealing third gave us the same result as the Aston Villa apocalypse. Liverpool were overrun from the opening whistle, conceding twice before settling – and probably should have conceded more – before pulling just one, not the needed minimum two, back after finally getting its act together. Until Rodriguez's game-sealing third on the break with 10 minutes to play.
Southampton had multiple chances to extend its lead before finally doing so. An onside Lambert burst through Liverpool's failed offside trap, thankfully denied by Jones. The stand-in keeper then repelled Lallana's blast, with Ramirez acrobatically sending the rebound over the bar.
By the 25th minute, Liverpool finally began to settle, able to keep possession longer than microsecond moments, although still all too prone to giving the ball away through a combination of poor passing and Southampton pressure.
Which, of course, was quickly followed by a second stomach punch. Skrtel was again penalized for climbing all over a defender, conceding a free kick in the left channel. Lambert's effort would have bounced harmlessly off the wall had Sturridge not turned away from contact, allowing the ball to deflect off him through the gap, wrong-footing Jones. Sigh. It was no more than Southampton deserved, but once again, Liverpool's biggest problem seems to be Liverpool.
You can't help but fault the changes to the starting lineup for much of Liverpool's incoherence. No one played well today, but the two alterations to the XI were, by far, the two biggest scapegoats. Rodgers has managed Liverpool's fitness excellently this season – it's why Gerrard's been able to play every minute of every league match, why Agger and Johnson have missed far fewer games than usual – but leaving Lucas and Carragher out, for whatever reasons (and with an international break imminent, no less), completely unbalanced the defense, while both Allen and Skrtel were abysmal at best. The former looked a man in need of surgery, three steps off the pace, unable to provide even marginal defensive cover. The latter looked shell-shocked, totally bereft of all confidence.
Coutinho pulled one back just before half-time to give Liverpool hope, hammering in a fortunate rebound after Sturridge's shot from Gerrard's knockdown was blocked. Lucas replaced Allen to start the second half, remedying one of the first half's predominant issues, while Coutinho took up a central position as Suarez pulled wide.
But Liverpool still flailed about discordantly, unable to convert its two marginal openings before Southampton steadied the ship: Coutinho was unnecessarily caught offside when released by Downing's deep cross, followed by Suarez just unable to reach Lucas' clever chip over Southampton's back line.
From there, aside from a Suarez free kick straight down Boruc's throat, Southampton had the better opportunities, nearly unlocking Liverpool twice, requiring last ditch defending from Johnson and Enrique to cut out dangerous openings. Once again, it baffled that Rodgers made no further changes, refusing to bring on Henderson for the disappointing Sturridge or the tiring Coutinho. And then Rodriguez finally made Liverpool pay on the break, charging away from Lucas with Skrtel backing off and backing off and showing Rodriguez onto his stronger foot and backing off some more. Jones parried the first shot, but Rodriguez was quickest to the rebound. Comeback aborted. Game over. Humiliation complete.
And then, in what appeared an effort to troll Liverpool fans, Henderson finally replaced Sturridge after the third goal. Too little, too late. Much, much too late.
Everything that was feared came true, both from Southampton and from Liverpool. St. Mary's remains a cursed ground. Southampton again raised its game against more impressivee opposition, looking the side that demolished City rather than the team which embarrassingly lost to Newcastle and QPR. The home side's pressing completely unsettled Liverpool's duct-taped defense, while the movement of Southampton's front four completely confused those duct-taped defenders. Lallana, Rodriguez, and Ramirez interchanged brilliantly, finding gaps all over the final third. Lambert dragged center-backs out of position, then other attackers moved into the vacated space. It was a masterclass of attacking movement. It was the style of attacking that makes Liverpool look its best, but a style of attacking that Liverpool all too often lacks.
Credit to Southampton for their comprehensive display, but Liverpool made it easy for them, as Liverpool is all too prone to do. The lineup changes may have confused, may have made it worse, but no Liverpool played looked especially bothered. It's a sad state of affairs when Downing, even if ineffective, seems the hardest worker. The early concession sent Suarez into that frightening state of frustration, screaming at officials and teammates, angry at the world. Sturridge barely got into the match. Allen and Gerrard were overrun in midfield, the defense was wholly unsettled, and Liverpool's passing was utterly abhorrent from everyone involved. Liverpool's 74.4% accuracy is a new low for the season, a full percentage point worse than last week against Tottenham.
And in what seems to be a recurring phenomenon, an international break comes at an inopportune time. Liverpool's next match isn't for 15 days, and Rodgers won't be able to rectify today's multiple problems on the training pitch.
One of these days, maybe I'll learn. There are no turning points. Liverpool's only consistency is inconsistency. Two steps forward, but even more steps backwards.