Reds must not kid themselves over Cup exit

Posted by Kristian Walsh

It would be easy to disregard Oldham Athletic's 3-2 victory over Liverpool on Sunday as something supernatural; that the narrative had already been mapped out with the most dramatic exeunt awaiting. After good results for Luton, Leeds and Brentford in the competition this weekend, it would be simple to attribute Liverpool's defeat to the swirling wind around Boundary Park blowing the remainder of the FA Cup's magic fairy dust upon the League One side.

Time for a reality check: Brendan Rodgers' side had the tie in their hands and perpetually let it slip from their grasp. Sometimes literally. To write this defeat off as something that happens in the FA Cup would be foolish; mind the sand in your eyes after you unbury your head from the mass of it.

-- Liverpool booted out by Oldham

It was not the supposed magic of the Cup that caused two international centre backs to be bullied by a striker (Matt Smith) who educated himself at Solihull Moors and Macclesfield Town. It was not fate that determined Liverpool’s second-choice goalkeeper as inept at most basic goalkeeping skills. It was not one of those days that brought the unbalancing act back to the midfield.

To say Liverpool beat themselves would do disservice to a magnificent Oldham effort. But theirs was a setup perfect to cause the Premier League side problems. Manager Paul Dickov would have no doubt salivated over his television last week as he watched Liverpool’s defeats this season and saw brutish battering-ram centre forwards make a mockery of their defence. Sunday's benefactor of such fragility was Smith (first-half brace), who appeared twice as tall as Sebastian Coates and twice as strong as Martin Skrtel.

Criticism should not rest at the feet of Coates and Skrtel solely, nor Brad Jones, who was directly responsible for Oldham's second. In fairness, resting anything at Jones' feet recently -- particularly a football -- appears to be detrimental. Alas, it is easy to single out poor individual performances -- Daniel Sturridge had his first bad game for the club; Raheem Sterling danced into the full back consistently; Jack Robinson looked like a lost little boy for most of the game, his one blast of arrogance coming with an inexplicable shot on goal while Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard stood free in the area.

But far more worrying for Liverpool was the lack of team cohesion once more. After seemingly solving the Rubik’s Cube that is the midfield trio, Rodgers merely went for two in the middle; Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson were sitting ducks as Oldham played their natural pressing game, squeezing out every blade of grass as the floodlights began to energise and galvanise. The defence, as documented, were woeful, while Suarez and Sturridge failed to link up as well as they did against Manchester United and Norwich. Sympathy also abounds for Fabio Borini, a £10 million hare designed to distract the back four with his movement and expected to do little else.

Liverpool have no one to blame but themselves. They cannot even decree their team was under strength -- nine of the starting 11 have an international cap, while full backs Robinson and Andre Wisdom have played for the England U-21s. Though Gerrard was missed, and provided a stark half-hour reminder of his quality once off the bench, it was still a strong side. The issue is not necessarily with the personnel but the way they set up.

Welcome Captain Obvious to the ship: when Liverpool win, the system looks finely tuned; when Liverpool lose, the system looks shoddy and susceptible to basic counter-management from the opposition. The biggest problem Rodgers faced Sunday, on a night Liverpool lost, is that the system looked substandard against a League One side battling against relegation. The level of ability does not seem to matter -- if a side have a strong striker and press high up the pitch, Liverpool struggle.

Still, it is early days. Yet there are few days left this month if the club want to rectify it by fresh acquisitions. Goalkeepers and left backs should be on their radar irrespective of the Oldham defeat, while a commanding centre back and physical wardrobe of energy in midfield should be added to the squad in the summer.

For now, the FA Cup continues without Liverpool -- just as it did on the five other occasions since 2000 that they went out to lower-league opposition. If there is any comfort for Liverpool, it is that this has happened before. If there is any shrapnel of solace, it is that they looked comfortable at 1-1 until Jones handed the initiative back to Oldham. If there is something to give Rodgers hope, it is the performance against Norwich, where big, strong Grant Holt hardly had a touch up front for the Canaries.

But Liverpool would be kidding themselves if they did not recognise this Cup exit as a stark warning. This was nothing to do with magic or fate; this was one team hitting another's weak spots with unerring precision. With Arsenal and Manchester City in the next seven days, Liverpool will hope imagination and improvement will follow the ignominy.

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