It was arguable that, given the summer transfer outlay, Kenny Dalglish should have come into this fixture as the manager under greater scrutiny. But in ensuring he has now gone 12 matches unbeaten against Chelsea while in charge of Liverpool he left the focus fixed on André Villas-Boas. The 34-year-old has never experienced toils quite this troubling in his fledgling managerial career. Chelsea had never lost successive home league games under Roman Abramovich's ownership, though three defeats in four league matches is squeezing confidence at the club. Of course, Villas-Boas is charged with more than short-term success. He has to rejuvenate the team while the squad continues to evolve – transfer policy is aimed at more youthful recruits these days – which can only be a long-term project. He needs time to impose his ideas and make his influence properly felt. But Chelsea are understandably terrified of ever failing to qualify for the Champions League. Those fears did for Luiz Felipe Scolari in the winter of 2009, though the Brazilian dropped only seven points in his first 12 games in charge. The Portuguese has shed twice as many in the same time.
To suggest Chelsea are not as watertight as they once were is hardly revelatory. The runaround Arsenal administered here this month in plundering five proved as much, as does the sorry tally of two clean sheets in the Premier League to date all term. Yet this team are contriving to concede increasingly ridiculous goals. Petr Cech's implausible throw to Mikel John Obi just after the half‑hour provided Liverpool with their opener, Charlie Adam's snapped tackle and Craig Bellamy's awareness duly cutting a swath through panicked defenders. The ease with which Glen Johnson glided past Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda for the winner was ridiculous. Chelsea may be experimenting with a more attacking approach but they have conceded 17 times in 12 games this season, two more than they did in the entirety of José Mourinho's first season at the club. And Alex, a tower of strength in the blanks achieved at Stoke City and Blackburn Rovers in two of his three appearances this season, was not even in the 18-man matchday squad here.
This was a result for Dalglish to savour, a victory to make the rest of the division sit up and take real notice. Yet, as his team contemplate a nine-match unbeaten run that has put them level on points with fourth place, there will be frustration at the wastefulness that has ensured Manchester City remain so distant at the top. Had Liverpool prevailed in matches they would have expected to win – most notably at home to Swansea City, Norwich City and Sunderland, but also even against Manchester United and Stoke City in games they dominated – they would be title contenders. Their unbeaten sequence suggests consistency, though that is deceptive. They are a team capable of startling results but they remain a work in progress. Even so, under Dalglish, the future feels decidedly bright again.
The dust has settled on the frenzied transfer dealings involving these clubs on the final day of the mid-winter window in January but Liverpool and Chelsea are still waiting to see any real return on their money. Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres began this match as £85m worth of substitutes, the pair granted a combined eight minutes to impress. Throw in Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, who began on the visitors' bench, and Raul Meireles among the home replacements at the start, and there are plenty of new arrivals waiting to settle. Yet it is the forwards' toils that hog the limelight. Torres and Carroll have now contributed seven goals in 41 Premier League games between them since leaving their previous clubs. Villas-Boas had been quick to praise the Spaniard in the build-up to this contest with former employers, only to leave him out. That said much. As did the decision to introduce Daniel Sturridge at the break rather than the £50m record signing.
The best piece of business achieved on the eve of the closure of the January transfer window still feels as if it was Luis Suárez's £22m signing from Ajax. The Uruguayan has concerns off the pitch, with a Football Association charge for racially abusing Patrice Evra hanging over him, but his form is impressive. He was at his best slipping Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt, such willing runners, through Chelsea's obligatory high line in the opening period with clever reverse passes aplenty. His involvement in the rat-a-tat of passes that pre-empted Maxi Rodríguez's goal was almost inevitable. The striker was not involved in Johnson's winner here, but that was bizarre: he feels integral to every attack this Liverpool team muster at present.