New-look Liverpool left in starting blocks
02 October 2014, 14:00
London -Liverpool's damaging 1-0 defeat at Basel in the Champions League continued an underwhelming start to the season for a team struggling to adapt to life after Luis Suarez.
Runners-up to Manchester City in last season's Premier League title race, Liverpool are currently 14th in the table, nine points behind leaders Chelsea, after losing three of their opening six games and winning only two.
They needed a stoppage-time penalty to beat newcomers Ludogorets Razgrad in their first Champions League game and only squeezed past second-tier Middlesbrough in the League Cup after edging a penalty shootout 14-13.
With a Champions League double-header against champions Real Madrid now looming on the horizon, captain Steven Gerrard delivered a stern warning after Wednesday's loss in Basel, accusing his team-mates of being "soft".
"They wanted it more, which is very disappointing," Gerrard told Sky Sports. "We didn't deserve anything. We were too soft all over the pitch."
Liverpool had an unsettled close-season, reluctantly ceding Suarez to Barcelona and investing around 116 million ($188 million, 148 million euros) in new signings, and the new players are still finding their feet.
Adam Lallana and Rickie Lambert are still awaiting their first Liverpool goals after arriving from Southampton, while Lazar Markovic, recruited from Benfica, has looked lightweight in his early outings.
Meanwhile, a reconfigured defence featuring new arrivals Dejan Lovren, Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno looks no more watertight than the one that shipped 50 goals in the league last season.
Liverpool have kept only one clean sheet in their nine games in all competitions, in a 3-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur, and have looked particularly vulnerable at set-pieces.
Key individuals have also come under scrutiny.
Gerrard has at times shown his 34 years, notably in the 3-1 loss at West Ham United, while Mamadou Sakho had to apologise for leaving Anfield early after being left out of the squad for Saturday's 1-1 draw with Everton.Balotelli 'a mannequin'
In addition, goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has been criticised by television pundit Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender, for crouching down too low when he is anticipating shots.
It is in attack, however, that Liverpool's problems are most clearly apparent.
While Raheem Sterling continues to excite, it was only in the impressive victory at Spurs that Liverpool showed anything reminiscent of the dazzling football with which they laid waste to their opponents last season.
A thigh injury to Daniel Sturridge has robbed them of their attacking spearhead and Mario Balotelli is yet to convince as a replacement for the mercurial Suarez.
Where the scurrying Suarez fizzed with energy and enterprise, Balotelli has a tendency to amble around the pitch, making it harder for Liverpool to pull opposition defences out of shape.
And despite shooting more frequently than any other Premier League player, the former AC Milan striker has found the target with only a quarter of his attempts at goal and has scored only once in seven games.
"Mario Balotelli is an individual. The way Suarez and Sterling and Sturridge integrated, it was beautiful," says former Arsenal defender Martin Keown, who now works as a pundit for the BBC.
"Balotelli is a bit of a fixed mannequin and he has to learn the Liverpool way or he'll just be standing there watching."
By way of mitigation, manager Brendan Rodgers can point to injuries that have sidelined Sturridge, Sakho, Lallana, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson, Jon Flanagan, Joe Allen and new signing Emre Can at one time or another.
Sturridge remains doubtful for Saturday's home game with West Bromwich Albion, and Liverpool can scarcely afford to be without the England international for much longer.
Rodgers may justifiably claim that Liverpool are "a work in progress", but after such a sluggish start, their season is in danger of being over before it has even begun.
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