With Liverpool failing to get the necessary results against the weakest portion of their schedule comes confirmation that for all the talk of the top four, at the end of the day this is a mid-table side heading for a mid-table finish.
Liverpool have spent much of the season holding on to the sliver of hope provided by the struggles of the various clubs ahead of them in the table to find consistent form of their own. However, as the weeks slip by and the gap between Liverpool and the top four remains largely unchanged, it becomes ever harder to imagine the club being able to capitalise on the fact that with December half over third and thirteenth are separated by only nine points.
"Any game you lose is disappointing," said Glen Johnson following the loss against Aston Villa that saw Liverpool drop to twelfth. "I just think we were lacking a bit of tempo. It was difficult and it was just one of those games. It was a great opportunity to pick up three more points and we missed out, [but] we have to put this behind us. We have a lot of games coming up and we have to look to put things right next weekend."
The problem for this Liverpool side, though, is that even if they do put things right when Fulham come to town on Saturday, dropped points against Stoke City or QPR would just as easily undo that good work—and even the most optimistic likely won't expect Liverpool to take maximum points against their next three opponents. As always, the point is less about the points taken on a match by match basis than it is about a club's average points per game haul—over a month; over half a year; over the season.
It's all well and good for fans and the manager to get excited by a pair of wins on the bounce against sides Liverpool should expect to beat if they're to have any aspirations to finish nearer the top of the table than the bottom. Yet if a good result or two is followed up by an unspeakably poor one it hardly matters, and in the end Liverpool's wildly varying form from week to week—from promising to dominant to underwhelming to downright painful—make the club look exactly what it is: a mid-table side.
Over the past six games in the league, Liverpool have averaged 1.67 points per game. It's a significant improvement over the disappointing 1.29 the club has averaged overall under Brendan Rodgers—though with those points accumulated against Wigan, Swansea, Tottenham, Southampton, West Ham, and Aston Villa it's been achieved against a weaker group of opponents than Liverpool faced to start the year.
It's also the kind of points haul that could see a side legitimately aspire to the top four—if they averaged it over the course of the season and if it was a year that saw lower than average points totals in the Premier League. Unfortunately for Liverpool, back at the start of their current six game stretch beginning with Wigan in the middle of November the club needed a little more than two points a game to have a legitimate hope of overcoming their shaky start and salvaging their league campaign.
Now, assuming one or two of the clubs currently loitering closer to the top four than them finds a bit of form, Liverpool will need 2.19 points per game to overcome their quite poor start and the simply not good enough top six form they've been on over the past month against the weakest part of their schedule. Liverpool, of course, could always be that side that finds a bit of form, but after dropping points the club desperately needed against the likes of Villa and Swansea while struggling mightily to dispatch West Ham, few will realistically expect them to do so.
This Liverpool side may be capable of the odd positive performance, an occasional flowing and dominant display. But any mid-table side can manage the odd good showing across a 38 game season and at this point they need quite a bit more than the odd good showing. At this point they need consistency—and well over two points a game.
With a win over Fulham on the weekend, Liverpool could conceivably jump past Arsenal and back into the top ten. With a loss they would be passed by Fulham and drop at least one more spot down the table. Either way, though, in the big picture the numbers say that unless something major changes, this Liverpool side is headed for a finish on the fringes of the top ten. If they can maintain the form they've shown over the past month, they might even be able to crack the top eight.