As always, match data from Stats Zone and Squawka.
• 1-0 v Stoke
• 1-0 at Villa
• 4-0 v Fulham
• 2-2 v Villa
• 1-0 v United
• 2-2 at Swansea
• 0-1 v Southampton
• 5-1 v Norwich
• 4-1 v West Ham
• 3-1 at Sunderland
• 3-1 v Crystal Palace
• 2-2 at Newcastle
• 4-1 v West Brom
• 0-2 at Arsenal
• 3-3 at Everton
• 1-3 at Hull City
• 5-0 at Tottenham
• 3-1 v Cardiff
• 1-2 at Man City
• 1-2 at Chelsea
• 2-0 v Hull City
• 5-3 at Stoke
• 4-0 v Everton
• 1-1 at West Brom
• 5-1 v Arsenal
• 3-2 at Fulham
• 4-3 v Swansea
• 3-0 at Southampton
By my count, Saturday saw the seventh different starting formation that Brendan Rodgers has used in the 28 league matches so far. We can quibble over the differences between 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and 4-1-4-1, whether or not Aspas playing behind Sturridge in the first two matches was more 4-2-3-1 than 4-4-2, but the point still stands. For better or worse, better and worse, Rodgers has become one of the more tactically versatile managers in recent years. Not just at Liverpool, but in the entire league.
"For me the system is irrelevant. You look at each game and it's about getting the best out of what we have available against the opponents we're playing. The style is always the same: to control and dominate the game, be tactically strong and be very good in transition and we saw all of those aspects." – Brendan Rodgers
Over the past few seasons, "control and dominate" have become synonyms for 'passing and possession statistics.' Not only are those easy metrics to understand, that was how Brendan Rodgers' Swansea played, and that was usually how Rafa Benitez's Liverpool played. Well, that often isn't the case with this season's side. On Saturday, Liverpool's opponent had more possession for the 10th time this season; it happened just seven times last season. Liverpool didn't out-pass or out-possess Arsenal or Everton in two of this season's three most notable victories. But they did control and dominate those games, very much so, forcing both of those sides to play the way that Liverpool wanted them to play, propelled by early goals thanks to the potency of Liverpool's attack and ability on set plays.
But Liverpool didn't really control or dominate Saturday's match, in any sense of the words, until getting the second goal in the 58th minute. Liverpool were fortunate to get their first goal thanks to Lallana's wayward tackle-cum-pass and Fonte's deflection, having fouled up the best chance of the opening half-hour nine minutes earlier, a trademark counter-attack cut out when Fonte nipped in front of Sturridge's attempted center.
Otherwise, it was all Southampton pretty much all of the time. In passing and possession, in shots and chances created, in where the action took place. And with Liverpool's usually potent counter-attack unable to get going, as Southampton's typical high pressing very much unsettled the away side, with 13 of 33 successful tackles (17 of 44 in total) in Liverpool's half.
But despite that "dominance," Southampton's first shot on target was Mignolet's terrific save in the 43rd minute; its only other shot on target was Lallana's easily saved effort in the 49th. Yes, Liverpool were fortunate when Lallana hit the post in the 33rd, but eight of Southampton's 13 shots were off-target. You're not going to beat many sides when that profligate in front of goal.
And Liverpool did force Southampton to play a certain way, one somewhat outside of their comfort zone.
Liverpool with ball recoveries in the clogged center of the pitch and tackles out wide, where the congested midfield forced them to play. Southampton reliant on crosses, and almost totally unable to complete take-ons in the attacking third. Only Liverpool, Arsenal, City, and Newcastle average more throughballs per match than Southampton this season; Southampton attempted just one on Saturday, and it didn't even find its intended recipient. Despite their possession dominance, Southampton still had to make four tackles and four interceptions in their own box. Liverpool required just the one interception to keep its clean sheet.
And Liverpool were both tactically strong and, despite the first half's hiccups, good enough in transition. Here we are, talking about how Liverpool's attack was both below par and up against a very good defense which has made Liverpool suffer in each of the three meetings since promotion, and Liverpool still scored three goals. Once Liverpool got its second – an excellent pass, pass, pass, pass BOOM killer ball, there goes Suarez, there goes Southampton's defense move – the match was over. Liverpool were ascendant, in search of a third (and unlucky not to score it within 15 minutes of their second, registering five shots in almost as many minutes), then content to smother the life out of the game, finally getting that third in the dying throes of injury time. But that can happen if the opposition press like madmen for an hour, then find themselves two goals down and tiring.
Make no mistake, Southampton are a very good side. As Liverpool have found out twice in the last year. Which makes both this display and result that much more impressive.
That Rodgers has used seven different starting formations is fairly clear evidence that this is still a developing side, no matter his desire for versatility. That this was just Liverpool's eighth clean sheet of the season is fairly clear evidence that this is still a developing side, and that Agger and Johnson's return will improve the defense as both return to match fitness, both playing much better than they did a week before.
That Liverpool currently sit second in the league, despite being a still-developing side, speaks to just how much improvement they've made on last season's form, how good Liverpool's attack is, and the league's surprising amount of parity, at least compared to recent campaigns.
And that a little bit of luck – whether it's the ball falling to Suarez or Lallana hitting the post – goes a long way when combined with a little bit of skill – Suarez's finish, Mignolet's save, Gerrard's pass and Suarez's run on the second goal – and a good game plan.