Grim is the word. Liverpool-Swansea was grim. Unrelentingly, teeth-grindingly, appallingly grim.
There was, this time, no leeway to claim the opposition were too direct or the officials blinkered. It was a simply, starkly, awful performance.
The shambling figures on the Anfield pitch bore no comparison even to the confused but dogged side who’d been denied victory at Everton on Sunday.
It may be wrong to single out individuals for criticism amid collective failure, but with Joe Cole it just feels so right.
A one-man study in the ravages of ageing (at 30 years old), Cole made a significant contribution. Not to Liverpool’s chances of winning this match, but to their forward planning. Whether it’s a mutual termination, a loan with wages paid or – bear with me here – a transfer for actual money, he must be shifted. Ian Ayre needs to be on the phone to Dubai, West Ham and the animal sanctuary Harry Redknapp once promised to open (in what was certainly not a cynical PR ploy) to make this happen.
Let’s face it, Cole is a bellwether for the extent to which this squad is all over the place. Like a basement riddled with dry rot, even the bits that look alright will crumble at the slightest touch.
At the start of the season the club looked well-stocked defensively. A Martin Kelly injury, Jose Enrique’s ongoing, partwork lobotomy (this week the hypothalamus gets it) and Jamie Carragher’s seemingly terminal decline have put paid to those notions.
On Wednesday Liverpool lined up with a converted fringe midfielder and a 19-year-old as full-backs. Jordan Henderson was tidy in possession without really getting to grips with the role’s positional demands, while Jack Robinson’s performance should ring alarm bells for anyone pinning their hopes on the left-back as a long-term prospect.
Frequently outmuscled by one of the Premier League’s less physical teams, of even more concern was Robinson’s apparent reticence to join attacks. A lack of what Brian Clough termed ‘moral courage’ has been the undoing of many a footballing prospect, and Robinson needs quickly to adapt his approach if he is to avoid slipping out of the picture entirely.
Carragher’s departure from the field was saddening, the erstwhile captain not sticking around for any of the after-match formalities. It cannot be long before he heads down the tunnel a final time.
And this is just the defence. Seb Coates, possibly the toughest man to dribble round in the entire league, offers hope. But the fact remains that an injury to Daniel Agger or Glen Johnson could open up fissures across the whole back line.
Such is the tightrope Liverpool now walk in virtually every position. Suarez must play, yet to lose the Uruguayan to injury or suspension would be disastrous. Even a generally excellent display from Steven Gerrard on Wednesday was tinged with foreboding. At a stage when his workload needs careful management, Gerrard is getting through more games than ever.
I wrote recently that Brendan Rodgers deserved credit for giving young players opportunities. Already, though, we’re at the stage where those chances to shine risk becoming onerous burdens.
Rehoming Cole aside, there is much to be done in January. The need for effective cover at full-back and up front should take priority, yet there may be enough of a job on to replace necessary outgoings to prevent a significant overall increase in depth.
As Rodgers has suggested, it will take more than one transfer window to begin putting things right. The danger is that in the meantime key first-teamers, be they mainstays of the Benitez era or Luis Suarez, will become restless. Persuading these players his long-term vision not only exists but is worth pursuing will be a big part of the manager’s job for months to come.
There has rarely been a time when Liverpool FC’s on-field future has felt so uncertain, so vulnerable to external and internal factors which could alter the club’s course entirely. Wednesday reflected the extent to which Rodgers has taken on a bigger job – in every sense of the word.
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