"Better" hardly feels better when you still lose and it's Chelsea and you're denied a clear penalty in the 88th minute.
But "better" remains very much a relative term. It's hard to be worse than Liverpool's performances against Hull and Newcastle.
And Chelsea were better than Liverpool, Chelsea are better than Liverpool, and that was Liverpool's third loss in a row. Liverpool remain broken in attack, even though they took more shots than against Newcastle and Madrid combined, and Liverpool again conceded regrettable goals from set plays and counter-attacks, even if both were well-designed and well-taken by Chelsea.
Liverpool did and didn't learn from the almost-adequate performance at Real Madrid. Emre Can kept his place, but Lovren and Johnson returned to the side, and Toure, Lucas, and Manquillo returned to the sidelines (Manquillo wasn't even in the squad). Liverpool finally switched Sterling to the left, with Coutinho on the right, but remained 4-3-3. At least it was 4-1-2-3 rather than 4-2-3-1.
And Liverpool started well, as they did at City and against Madrid at Anfield. And this time, Liverpool actually reaped an early goal reward. Lovren and Mignolet passed the ball out from the back surprisingly well, Henderson and Sterling found space in midfield, and Can's deflected shot left Courtois flat-footed. It's probably not coincidence that Sterling started on the left, where he's much better than on the right, and cutting inside into space and running at defenders led to an assist.
But Liverpool couldn't maintain the lead for very long, with Chelsea's clever set play exploiting the mostly zonal marking instituted against Hull. Lovren was beaten to the first header, Chelsea's numbers overwhelmed Liverpool's set-up to the rebound from Mignolet's first save, the second effort just crept over the line and was confirmed by goal-line technology. Hard to come by but easy to go for this Liverpool.
The home side had a couple of chances to retake the lead – Henderson misplaying a clever corner routine, Coutinho's strong run ending in a shot saved and Cahill first to the rebound – but Chelsea were the stronger side by the 30th minute. Liverpool suddenly became unable to play out from the back, with turnovers leading to excellent chances twice blocked by Johnson, and Hazard shooting straight at Mignolet.
And the second half began in the same vein until Chelsea finally went ahead, even if it was slightly against the run of play: Willian's cross-field ball finding Azpilicueta just onside one-on-one against Coutinho with Johnson caught upfield and barely bothering to amble back, the left-back beating Coutinho, his deflected cross falling perfectly for an open Costa, with Moreno not marking either Chelsea player at the back post.
Once again, it never felt as if Liverpool were going to get back into the game after going behind. The substitutes – Allen for Can, Borini for Coutinho, Lambert for Balotelli, with Liverpool switching to a 4-Diamond-2 – did nothing to help the side. Liverpool had more possession, because Chelsea were happy to defend its lead knowing Liverpool's impotence, but the team was reliant on ineffective crosses and Liverpool's "best" two chances from those crosses came almost by accident: Moreno's cross, Borini's flick-on, Henderson's wild shot deflected wide; a cleared cross falling to Gerrard, his shot from distance blocked by Cahill's arm with no penalty given.
You could see Rodgers' logic behind the changes: he wanted to switch to two strikers, so Coutinho was always going to come off rather than Sterling for Borini, with neither Lallana nor Coutinho trusted to fill the shuttling role that Allen filled. Allen mostly played well (and was the only Liverpool player to create more than one chance), but the two substitute strikers remained just as ineffective as the starting striker. Chelsea are very good defensively, especially in the air, and well-organized. Liverpool are poorly organized in attack and, devoid of the ability to play through Chelsea's defense, resorted to crosses not likely to succeed.
And yet Liverpool still could have gotten a point if Anthony Taylor hadn't swallowed his whistle. Life is not fair.
So, yeah, even though Can played well and Liverpool actually scored and Liverpool were a bit better in defense, midfield, and attack, Liverpool still weren't good enough in defense, midfield, and attack, and this still looks a mediocre side at best. A mediocre side isn't beating this Chelsea. Liverpool still conceded on a set play and a counter-attack. There is no meritocracy if Lovren and Johnson start over Toure and Manquillo after Tuesday's match; Lovren (2/4), Johnson (2/4), Moreno (2/4), and Gerrard (1/2) were successful with just 50% of their attempted tackles. Liverpool are inconsistent playing out from the back, ineffective when pressing in the opposition half, and unable to create good chances in attack. "Shot monster" Mario Balotelli – who again at least worked hard – took just a single shot, after getting just two against both Newcastle and Hull.
That said, at least Liverpool scored, at least Liverpool took 12 shots, at least Liverpool looked marginally, barely more competent. Obviously not competent enough, but at least it wasn't Hull or Newcastle again. A vastly better Liverpool "earned" the same result last season. Now, Liverpool have yet another international break – and maybe even Sturridge will return after this one! – to try to remedy the remaining, on-going problems and maybe put today's few bright spots to better use.
The fixes need to happen fast. This season's quickly getting out of hand, if it's not already gone.