James Lawton: Benitez walks alone and directionless in the sad shadow of Shankly

The situation with Aquilani is becoming less a puzzle and more a scandal.

The worrying thing for Liverpool, if we can put it so mildly in these most desperate of circumstances, is that at last they found at least some of the best of themselves.

They had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard streaming on goal; they found for a little while much of the bite that has been so elusive for so long.

But there is yet again a withering question to ask Rafa Benitez.

This one has a potentially terminal ring to it. It wants to know, if this was indeed the best of Liverpool, if he was able to field his strongest team, give or take the mysterious continuing bench-warming of £20m Alberto Aquilani, where does it leave a club drifting remorselessly away from its old place among the elite of English and European football?

Not long into the second half of a match which Arsenal, despite lacking their front-line strikers Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, were able to transform with almost contemptuous ease, there was a cruel answer indeed.

It was that Liverpool are running close to bankruptcy. They had no response of consequence to the superb reanimation of Arsenal, after a half-time in which Arsène Wenger's men must also have been at least glimpsing the possibility that they were locked into a futility only underlined by the weekend frailties of Manchester United and Chelsea. Liverpool were leaden, even surly in their frustration, and if there was any need to underline the sense of a team which had utterly lost its way it was provided by the sight of Xabi Alonso sitting in the stand, and Aquilani sitting on the bench.

Whether or not the Italian will ever provide the kind of force, the sheer game-gripping panache of Alonso is a question far too premature, based on the evidence he has been allowed to provide since we were told he had become medically fit to play so long after his arrival at Anfield.

But there is a deeper point and it is one that was currently hovering over the Liverpool manager like a bird of prey.

If you decide to part with Alonso or, to be generous, refuse to strive publicly and passionately to prevent his departure, how can the leadership the player provided be allowed to slide into a kind of vacuum ever since he swopped the shirt of Liverpool for Real Madrid?

Maybe in time Aquilani will fill something of the need to give Liverpool some shape and rhythm, especially after they achieve something of an advantage over a playmaking team like Arsenal, as they did when the troubling uncertainties of Manuel Almunia spilt the ball at the feet of Dirk Kuyt. But football, if you see yourselves as contenders, is not about tomorrow but today and the situation with Aquilani is becoming less a puzzle and more a scandal.

Certainly, he has confirmed the reputation he enjoys back home in Italy. He is neat and sharp with skill and, with something of a run in the first team, who knows, he may also be influential. But then, by the time it happens Liverpool may well have a whole set of new priorities, chiefly the one of filling holes left by such disenchanted superstars as Gerrard and Torres.

In the first half, particularly, they played both with splendid application and much of their old élan. But long before the end their body language was doing rather more than murmur the possibility that they were part of a lost cause.

That this was becoming their certain fate no doubt had much to do with the spectacular upgrading of Arsenal's performance, especially in the way Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri suddenly saw the need to become much more relevant and Andrei Arshavin, who spent almost the entire first half bouncing off the likes of Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, reminded us there is no sweeter finishing touch in all of football.

Arsenal needed the win quite as much as Liverpool but for different reasons. They had to persuade themselves that they could indeed exploit the lost ground of Chelsea and United, and that the talk of their one day winning a major prize, rather than merely providing the most dazzling beautification in English football, had some basis in reality.

This they did, surely, with the assurance that came in the second half. Arsenal, having looked disconcerted, almost cowed by the force of Liverpool's opening assault, found a composure that marks the best of their work. They ran, they took up space intelligently, and Liverpool could do nothing but bluster their way into deeper crisis.

That such a denouement should come on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Shankly tradition is just one of the sadder aspects of what is happening at Anfield.

Mostly it is about a breakdown not just in confidence but in a way of playing. There is no true point of focus, no sense of a team with options beyond the individual brilliance of their two leading players. The rest, we have to say again, is mediocrity. Some of it is worthy and driven, but it is still mediocre. It was a worry guaranteed to appal Shankly and plainly it is beginning to have the same effect on many of the Liverpool fans who sing "You'll Never Walk Alone", then drift away to the turnstiles before the end in another statement of dismay and disillusion.

For the greatest winners in the history of English football it is increasingly hard not to believe that time has already run out.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada