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Aug 17, 2014

Three Points: Liverpool vs. Southampton

LIVERPOOL, England -- Three observations from Liverpool's 2-1 win vs. Southampton to kick off their Premier League campaign.

1. Same old Liverpool?

It was a striker's goal: scrappy, scruffy and significant. Daniel Sturridge didn't make particularly clean contact when the chance came his way, but he did enough to guide Raheem Sterling's header over the line. One point became three, an uncertain start to life after Luis Suarez became a winning beginning to the season. It was a poacher's effort, and in a way, Liverpool pilfered the points.

The home side did have more pressure and more possession, but they could have been 2-1 down when Steven Davis was granted a wonderful chance to put Southampton ahead. They could have been pegged back to 2-2 when Morgan Schneiderlin struck the bar and Shane Long should have converted the rebound. Instead, they have a 13th victory in their last 15 league games.

Raheem Sterling and Liverpool enjoyed a bright, but nervous, start to their Prem campaign.
Raheem Sterling and Liverpool enjoyed a bright, but nervous, start to their Prem campaign.

In keeping with many of their previous wins, it was an eventful, nerve-wracking affair. There have been other matches where Liverpool have seized and lost the initiative, others where their powers of recovery and team spirit have been apparent and others where players have delivered in crucial moments. They continue to make for entertaining viewing.

Then again, perhaps it should be no surprise that little has changed: They may have spent more than 100 million pounds and made eight signings this summer, but the core of the team was the same. Each of the midfielders and attackers who started was at Anfield last season. The only difference, of course, was that Suarez was missing. And even then, he ensured he would be absent from the moment he bit Giorgio Chiellini during the World Cup, not when he finalised his move to Barcelona.

2. Southampton ease into new era

Wholesale change can backfire, and while Southampton were unable to stop many of their top players from leaving, manager Ronald Koeman was probably wise to only select four debutants in the starting 11. Anfield is not the place to parade a side full of strangers, but a Southampton team with a mix of old and new almost procured a point.

Florin Gardos, the Romanian centre-back who was signed as Dejan Lovren's replacement, is not fully fit. Saphir Taider, loaned from Inter Milan, and Long, bought from Hull, began on the bench. The 12 million pound forward should have equalised in his cameo, somehow heading wide from a few yards instead.

LiverpoolLiverpool
SouthamptonSouthampton
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Yet Southampton did score one goal thanks largely to an arrival. Dusan Tadic's talent was highlighted by his defence-splitting flick that led to Nathaniel Clyne's emphatic leveller. With a marked preference for his left foot and evident skill in possession, the Serbian winger looks a gifted addition. His fondness for exaggerating contact may make him unpopular with opponents -- it also brought Liverpool's new right-back, Javier Manquillo, a caution -- but he also has the skill to trouble defenders.

Of the other newcomers, Ryan Bertrand made a competent start at left-back. The former Liverpool target did not venture forward as often as Luke Shaw used to, but this was not the fixture in which to display his attacking instincts.

In goal, Fraser Forster had no chance with Sterling's goal, though a subsequent parry from the winger was rather less convincing. As Artur Boruc, the first choice for the past two seasons, is infamously eccentric, it made sense to bring in a less volatile character.

In attack, Graziano Pelle has the physique to replace Rickie Lambert; the Italian target man is similarly strapping. It remains to be seen, however, if his prolific goal scoring will be confined to Dutch football. He scored 55 times in 66 games for Koeman's Feyenoord but was never as potent in his homeland.

3. Lovren the leader

While much of the 75 million pounds Liverpool received for Suarez has been spent on attack-minded players, their most important addition may not be charged with making up the 31-goal, 12-assist shortfall that resulted from the striker's move to Barcelona.

Former Southampton defender Lovren was the only one of Brendan Rodgers' buys to start. Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic are injured, Rickie Lambert began on the bench and Emre Can stayed there, Divock Origi has been loaned back to Lille and left-back Alberto Moreno was not ready to feature. Each will in time, but for now, Lovren appears to be the pivotal acquisition.

In the end, Daniel Sturridge secured all three points for Liverpool.
In the end, Daniel Sturridge secured all three points for Liverpool.

Indeed, had anyone been unaware, it wouldn't have been immediately apparent this was his competitive debut. The Croatian looked the leader and not the newcomer in the back four, taking responsibility and talking, communicating with clear body language and appearing an assured figure. His passing was crisp and accurate, his general demeanour that of a man who belongs in a Liverpool shirt.

Given Liverpool's defensive difficulties last season, his poise was especially auspicious. The problem was that the addition of one centre-back did not immediately add solidity. Lovren capitalised on their past problems at the back, scoring Southampton's winner at Anfield last September. When Saints defender Clyne pierced the Liverpool defence Sunday, Lovren was blameless; perhaps Martin Skrtel, his central-defensive colleague, could have gotten across quicker to cover. Nor was Lovren at fault when Schneiderlin rattled the bar. Nevertheless, it was a sign that Liverpool's defence is not watertight just yet.

Lovren has displaced the more cumbersome Mamadou Sakho, whose alliance with Skrtel proved too flawed at times last season. The objective for Rodgers is to construct more of a frugal defence after leaking 50 goals last season. Without Suarez and with Lovren, Liverpool probably won't score as many goals this season, but if they concede fewer, it may not matter. But that remains an "if."

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.

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