In the eyes of their studious coach and every keen observer present, Liverpool were off the pace too long when defeated 2-1 at Tottenham on Saturday. "We only played for an hour," Houllier said.
Attitude, as much as ability. If Liverpool's comparative decline relates to collective shortcomings, in defence especially, Houllier has also the task of re-establishing them as a team of real character.
When an explanation for Liverpool's lethargic opening was sought, Houllier confessed bafflement. "Maybe it had something to do with how hard Tottenham came at us and that [Steve] Gerrard was hurt," he said, "but we defended far too deep for most of the first half. We got stretched and lost touch with Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen."
The hard-nosed mood of Liverpool's finest teams was constant, carried faultlessly from dressing-room to playing field. "Aye, Tommy's a hard boy," Bill Shankly once said unsympathetically when shown the wound Arsenal's centre-half Terry Neill had sustained in a tackle with Tommy Smith.
No need, then, for Liverpool's opponents to think of having an edge in flat out urgency. "We were always up for it," one of their former heroes, Ian St John, said before Saturday's encounter further highlighted the task Houllier has before him.
Tottenham have become a much different proposition since exposure to George Graham's demanding tutorials, livelier and better organised, so Liverpool could not afford any lapses in collective application. "I don't think we lacked passion," Houllier added with a trace of irritation, "but I've told the players that we can't let the opposition dictate to us."
Fired up since Graham's arrival, in a number of cases trying to impress him, Tottenham were soon asking Liverpool's defenders questions of the sort that makes strengthening the back line a matter of utmost urgency.
Like many old Anfield hands, St John fears for Liverpool whenever they come under aerial bombardment. "It never used to be a problem," he said. "Now, if you see the ball sent high into the penalty area, you have to wonder if they can deal with it."
In discussions with David Ginola, in seeking the best from a rare if fitful talent, Graham has stressed the importance of getting in centres. "We did that well again in the first half," he said, "and put Liverpool under a lot of pressure but, as I imagined, they came back at us."
Not to any great effect until Jamie Carragher's slash at Chris Armstrong's hard-driven low cross in the 50th minute ended up in his own net to give Tottenham a two-goal advantage. The first 45 minutes had left Houllier with plenty of opportunities to exercise his knowledge and powers of motivation. Unconvincing when called on to match Tottenham's attackers in the air, often flat-footed under Ginola's centres, Liverpool's failure to clear their lines proved costly when a sloppy headed clearance fell for Ruel Fox, whose deflected shot sped past David James in the 26th minute.
Tottenham had some anxious moments too, but the turning point did not come until Patrik Berger cut their lead with as good a free-kick as you will see anywhere.
From then until late in the game Liverpool looked more like the sort of team Houllier is aiming to put out. More compact, combative in midfield, at last taking advantage of Owen's blistering pace and Fowler's ball-carrying ability. "For a while they outplayed us," Graham admitted.
Sent wider to attack Tottenham's stand-in left back, Andy Sinton, and with Vegard Heggem getting forward on that flank, Liverpool made the home supporters anxious. Owen almost made a goal for Fowler before outstripping Tottenham's defence and sending a shot inches wide of the far post.
Even so, Tottenham finished in the ascendancy, almost adding to their lead in couple of goalmouth scrambles. By then Graham's composure had left him. Urging from the touchline, he fell into animated conversation with one of the referee's assistants. What was going on? "We were having a discussion about the laws," he smiled.
Goals: Fox (26) 1-0; Carragher (og 50) 2-0; Berger (55) 2-1.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Young, Campbell, Sinton; Fox, Anderton, Nielsen, Ginola; Armstrong, Iversen (Ferdinand,33). Substitutes not used: Baardsen (gk), Calderwood, Scales, Clemence.
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; Carragher, Staunton, Babb; Heggem, Gerrard (Thompson, 55), Ince, Berger, Bjornebye (Murphy, 75); Owen, Fowler. Substitutes not used: Friedel (gk), Kvarme, Harkness.
Referee: G Barber (Surrey).
Booking: Liverpool: Thompson.
Man of the match: Campbell.
Attendance: 36,521.Reuse content