Liverpool were still a bit crap, Liverpool were definitely a bit lucky, but it's three points, a clean sheet, and no defensive errors, playing a side that Liverpool historically struggle against, so it's also definite improvement.
Winning ugly is better than drawing ugly or losing ugly, and "not ugly" hasn't been an option since, say, August.
The less said about the first half, the better. Liverpool retained the shape and most of the personnel from Wednesday's match against Ludogorets: Coutinho for Gerrard and Enrique for Manquillo the only changes. Stoke's doubtful players were available, a full-strength XI that was typically compact, defensive, and looking to counter but mostly unable to. The familiar set-up against a Liverpool side that often falls to pieces in the attacking third.
And both sides were lukewarm, fetid garbage in that first half. Neither side were able to keep possession and neither side threatened (which I guess is progress for Liverpool's defense). Stoke's first shot on target came in the 55th minute, Liverpool's in the 65th.
Liverpool started the second half brighter, but Stoke – who had to make two substitutions by that point: Whelan replacing the injured Sidwell, Adam replacing the injured Whelan – had two frightening chances. Mignolet blocked Diouf's attempt from Bojan's counter in the 55th, Bojan beat Lucas all ends up before hitting the post on the hour.
But then Liverpool began to put things together. Cohesion was always going to be a struggle given how dire Liverpool have been of late, but at least things came together before Liverpool were behind. In 10 minutes, Sterling shot narrowly wide, Lucas and Lambert shot straight at Begovic, and Allen ballooned a 10-yard chance in front of goal. It was Liverpool's best spell in quite some time.
So when Liverpool seemingly ran out of steam after that burst, just before Gerrard replaced Lucas, it looked as if they'd again rue an inability to score. Especially when Stoke had two more heart-in-mouth moments, with Mignolet palming away Adam's cross-slash-shot and Sterling somehow blocking Diouf's effort on the line from a corner.
But then Liverpool finally scored, through one of the least likely goalscorers: Henderson's deep cross after sustained possession headed onto the crossbar by Lambert, Glen Johnson – off all people – first to react, quickest to react, and courageous in his diving header, kicked in the head for his trouble but scoring regardless. The scapegoat comes good. One of the scapegoats, anyway.
The final 12 minutes, including seven minutes of added time, were indescribably frightening, but Liverpool held out. Just as they had to do in this match last season. And while it was constantly panic-inducing, there was never a moment like last season's penalty save. Mignolet tipped over an unbelievable Bojan volley that might not have been going in anyway. Stoke had three corners: two claimed by Mignolet, one missed by Mignolet but somehow traveling through the box untouched. Terrifying, but not needing heroics to hang on either.
So, yeah, baby steps. It wasn't pretty, but it somehow worked. Barely, but it worked. That's pretty much all that matters at the moment.
There were signs of progress: the "flurry" just after the hour mark and prior to scoring, a clean sheet and no defensive errors, that Lucas and Toure kept their places after decent performances against Ludogorets, that Gerrard was actually rested when he needed to be rested. Allen and Lucas were probably Liverpool's best players, and it probably shouldn't be surprising that they looked a better pairing after playing together for more time.
There were still things to complain about: Liverpool's early impotence, the chances allowed but thankfully untaken, the lack of game-altering substitutions, Borini not even included on the bench despite Lambert huffing and puffing by the 70th minute after playing three games in six days. Liverpool still have a lot of things to fix.
But stopping this rot was never going to be easy. Coupled with the draw against Ludogorets, an acceptable result with signs of positivity but some continuing complaints, it might well be the very, very early start of the turnaround Liverpool so desperately need.
At this point, all that matters is the result, and Liverpool finally got a result.