In case you missed it, Luis Suárez doesn’t play for Liverpool anymore. Of course, if you were anywhere near Anfield yesterday, or had tuned in to Sky Sports to watch the Reds flick the switch on their new Premier League season, you would have found it impossible to escape the lurking reality that Liverpool are sans Suárez for the rest of time.
But the Uruguayan’s departure, however necessary or otherwise you render it, has allowed Brendan Rodgers the chance to manufacture a squad equally capable of challenging for the title as when Suárez was leading the charge. Sunday’s 2-1 victory at home to Southampton marked the first lily pad of 38 across an infamously slippery pond.
12 months ago, Liverpool set about re-writing the wrongs of the past four years without Suárez too, albeit on a more temporary basis. The second of three biting incidents to plague the talismanic striker’s career cut short his 2012-13 season and also delayed his impact on Liverpool’s unexpected title challenge the following campaign. Branislav Ivanović was the unfortunate recipient of Suárez’s sharp-toothed assault on that occasion, an incident that called Liverpool’s loyalty into question once more, after the club steadfastly defended their no.7 throughout his trial for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. Suárez was to miss five Premier League games of the 2013-14 season, a period that Liverpool navigated impressively, despite defeat at home to Sunday’s opposition, Southampton.
A year on and Liverpool have had to throw their first punches without the Uruguayan once more, and they negotiated their first obstacle in similar fashion to last season. Stoke City represented a combative, fearless opponent at Anfield last August, and were unfortunate to head home empty handed. A combination of luck and judgment helped Liverpool escape with victory – Simon Mignolet was the hero on his debut, saving a late penalty from Jonathan Walters. On this occasion, Southampton arrived on Merseyside nursing a severe headache from a summer purge that threatened to derail their season before it had even begun. Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and Dejan Lovren all left the south coast to join Liverpool, while Luke Shaw and Calum Chambers also turned their back on the club for whom they had rapidly forged reputations as England’s best young full-backs. New Dutch boss Ronald Koeman has infiltrated the Dutch market to bring in Graziano Pellè and Dušan Tadić, with Ryan Bertrand has arrived on loan from Chelsea and Fraser Forster has moved through the border to join from Celtic. Shane Long has since filled the void left by Lambert, having left Hull City for around £12m.
Despite 13 players leaving Southampton in the close-season, five of them key, there have been suggestions in some media quarters that the upheaval pales in comparison to Liverpool losing Suárez, a player on whom so much of the club’s enterprise and ambition was built on. It was clear to me at least that such pessimism was misplaced, and in fact the Reds may end up better off without a player who brought so much baggage with him. His latest ban would have seen him miss 13 Liverpool games in all competitions, a portion that at the very least shades in the foundations of a season, and at most, reveals the scope of what the team can achieve. Ridding themselves of Suárez for £75m seemed like the logical thing to do.
As it happens, Liverpool were impressive in stages against Southampton, and manager Rodgers was delighted with the determination of the team and the performances of debutants Lovren and Javi Manquillo, who signed on a two-year loan deal from Atlético Madrid earlier this month. Lovren was a commanding presence in defence, but was also composed and neat with the ball, a practice that he hasn’t always been so assured in displaying; only Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace surrendered possession in his own half more times than Lovren last season. That is a statistic the Croatian looks determined to put to bed already. Manquillo buzzed around with great energy and was quick to close down Tadić when he received the ball in wide areas. The Spaniard’s positioning was sometimes awry, but his pace allowed him to recover and nullify Tadić’s threat on a number of occasions. At 20 years of age, an issue with positioning can be eradicated in good time.
Liverpool opened their account for the season through Raheem Sterling, whose capacity for learning and improving seems infinite. With no Suárez to keep defenders occupied by lurking on the last shoulder, Sterling often put himself in positions to escape in behind, and Jordan Henderson’s sublime through-ball allowed the 19-year old to do exactly that. The finish was cute and clinical, but he had much to owe to his England colleague Henderson, who wrestled possession back from Southampton twice before spreading a delightful left-footed pass into Sterling’s stride.
As was the case for much of last season, Liverpool took their foot off the accelerator at the half-hour mark. Whether a tactic or a symptom of their high-tempo pressing and passing game, it often allowed the opposition to regain their shape and locate their own possession game. Southampton eased into theirs at the end of the half and continued to grow in confidence after the break before Nathaniel Clyne, a one-time Liverpool target, burst past a static Lucas Leiva to fire Saints level. Tadić’s clever backheel was the one moment of ingenuity the Serbian was permitted to make by Liverpool’s otherwise stubborn backline. Clyne almost repeated the dose later on in the half, but he was snuffed out by Martin Skrtel.
Despite dominating possession and making an impression in the final third for much of the half, Southampton’s impetus was deflated when Daniel Sturridge poked home from close-range following Sterling’s header. Koeman will doubtless be furious as to how a man as slight as Sterling was allowed to win a header in Southampton’s penalty box. This time last year, Sturridge was the match-winner against Stoke, albeit with a more spectacular effort than this one.
Another hero of that day was Mignolet, whose last-ditch save from Walters’ penalty is overlooked by many in a season that was dominated by SAS. Liverpool’s early momentum was in no small part down to Mignolet’s acrobatics on that day, and he may be responsible for another early surge this season on the back of Sunday’s performance. Southampton’s final chances of the game fell to two men at the opposite end of Southampton’s spectrum; Morgan Schneiderlin seems desperate to join Tottenham having handed in a transfer request in early August in hope of forcing through a move to join up with ex-Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino, while Shane Long has barely had time to catch a whiff of sea air since his move from Hull. The former’s left-footed strike was expertly tipped onto the underside of the crossbar by Mignolet, and Irishman Long headed the rebound wide when scoring looked like a mere formality. It was Liverpool’s afternoon.
Having deflected attention away from the departure of you-know-who for much of the summer, Brendan Rodgers expressed his happiness at Sunday’s result, while also giving credit to Southampton’s attitude. He also stated his desire to bring in another striker to provide goal-machine Sturridge with backup, and Lambert with adequate competition for a place. But on a day that marked the first tick in the box in what will be a much longer season for Liverpool, the result, and not who is scoring the goals, is the most important thing. Luis who?