Liverpool had a narrow one-goal lead thanks to Daniel Sturridge, despite looking toothless up front for long stretches thanks to a combination of excellent opposition defending and a couple of final-third miscues. Liverpool weren't allowed to take enough shots, and too many of those shots came from distance. Defensive shelling was just inviting trouble. But then Simon Mignolet somehow saved all three points, and Liverpool subsequently held on through injury-time nerves.
That was how last season started against Stoke. And, exactly one year later, that's how today's match went as well. Time may well be a flat circle.
Liverpool started with the same formation as in the final preseason match against Dortmund, with Lucas replacing Emre Can. And Liverpool bossed possession in the first half, controlling the tempo and denying Southampton forays forward, but also denied any space to operate in the final third.
It took a sumptuous, unbelievable long ball from Henderson, with his weaker foot no less, to open up the opposition for the first goal: Manquillo and Henderson hassling Tadic into losing possession near the halfway line, then a defense-destroying, perfectly-weighted pass for Sterling, who split the center-backs, took the ball in stride, and coolly finished around Forster.
But unlike those impressive performances last season, the early-ish goal didn't immediately lead to more. Liverpool slightly reverted into a shell, playing it safe, and Southampton started to rack up set plays with a couple of threatening opportunities both denied by Mignolet: Ward-Prowse's free kick caught by the wind and tipped over, Schneiderlin's shot from distance tipped over.
The shelling was even worse to start the second half. Southampton looked likely to find an equalizer from the restart, taking the game to the home side, and found that equalizer after just 11 minutes. A throw-in down Liverpool's left after near constant pressure, a lovely one-two between Clyne, easily eluding Johnson, and Tadic, holding off Lovren. Tadic's back heel put Clyne in on goal, both Lucas and Gerrard standing hands on hips watching Clyne burst into the box then unstoppably hammer a shot past Mignolet.
It was exactly what we'd complained about when Lucas and Gerrard were previously paired as deep-lying midfielders. Someone has to track that run, and they've played together long enough to figure out which of them should have gone. It was no coincidence that Allen soon replaced Lucas, switching the side to the more-familiar 4-3-3.
But with Liverpool still on tilt after conceding, Southampton had two excellent chances to snatch the lead. Mignolet denied Davis, his shot too close to the keeper, after Southampton broke down Liverpool's right and defenders were completely caught out of position, as Ward-Prowse probably should have shot rather than setting up Davis. Five minutes later, a near-replica of the equalizer, against cutting through the inside-right channel, this time Skrtel and Johnson doing just enough to prevent the shot getting through.
And that was swiftly followed by yet another personnel and formation change to try to stem the tide. Liverpool went through the full range of formations today, starting with the lopsided 4-2-3-1, shifting to 4-3-3 when Allen came on for Lucas, then going to the diamond after Lambert replaced Coutinho.
And Liverpool looked better after switching to the diamond – better able to get into the final third, better able to prevent Southampton's midfield from tearing them open. Three minutes after the change, the winner: Southampton unable to clear Henderson's cross, Sterling smartly first to the second ball header, finding the poacher Sturridge who'd snuck in front of Clyne for a tap-in. Absolute jubilation, with Rodgers celebrating like we'd rarely seen before.
But then, more defensive shelling. But this time, it seemed to work. Until the 88th minute: Liverpool trying to scramble clear from Clyne's cross, Gerrard's hoof out only finding Bertrand, whose header back in made it to Pelle, with Skrtel and Lovren trying to push out too quickly. Pelle's knock-down fell to an open Schneiderlin, but Mignolet somehow pushed the shot onto the crossbar, the ball bouncing a foot in front of the goal line. Long's attempted rebound header was poorly screwed wide, £12m well spent. And Liverpool survive, just, by the skin of their teeth, the four minutes of injury time finally spent keeping possession in Southampton's half.
So, just as they did 365 days ago, Liverpool did just enough. And, seeing Arsenal and Tottenham do the exact same thing yesterday, against worse opposition, that'll do. But there's no Suarez returning from suspension to restore the attack this season. Lallana and Markovic are still to return from injury, Moreno will come into the side as well, new signings and team-wide cohesion will improve with more matches, and there might be another striker in before the window closes. But all the fears about the increased impotence in attack remain valid, and while the defense was better, there were still those moments of madness that can punish a side.
Aside from Sterling, Lovren and Manquillo were two of Liverpool's best today, despite those worries in defense. Henderson was Henderson, with the added bonus of *that assist*. Coutinho was denied time and space by the outstanding Wanyama, Sturridge was subdued but still scored the winner. Mignolet responded when called upon. The scapegoats – Lucas and Johnson – sadly remain scapegoats.
It may not have been a great performance, but it's a great result. 37 more of those might kill me, but they'll suit Liverpool just fine.