Liverpool’s maddening defeat at the hands of their biggest rivals is hard to take, but a clear vision of the future is emerging.
Supposedly form doesn’t matter in fixtures like these, but both Liverpool and Manchester United’s performances at Anfield on Sunday afternoon were very much in-keeping with how their respective seasons have gone.
Liverpool’s showing was replete with energy, desire and tempo. They set about hassling their visitors into coughing up possession, tried to attack quickly and combined nicely at times in and around the United area.
The problem, as it so often is, was the lack of options in forward areas. On numerous occasions the Liverpool player in possession was either the most advanced attacking player or had only one team-mate ahead of him, therefore being forced to wait until reinforcements arrived or launch a hopeful pass forward in the general direction of a team-mate.
United, conversely, were largely flat and looked for the most part bereft of ideas. Whilst ruffled at times, they were able to keep David De Gea’s goal intact, and must have known that at some point Liverpool would show them an opening. So it proved.
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United’s performance was characterised by two things that Liverpool are in such desperately short supply of: top class goalkeeping and clinical finishing.
De Gea was once again an immovable barrier between the Liverpool and Manchester United’s goal, saving brilliantly from Emre Can twice and denying Adam Lallana in the first half.
Make no mistake, this was not and is not an accomplished Man United side. Liverpool did most things better than them, but not the things that really mattered. If we’re talking about key moments, Adam Lallana’s early header, Jordan Henderson’s shot wide and Roberto Firmino’s indecision all spring to mind.
In the bitter aftermath of defeat, positives can be hard to find, but many were in evidence here.
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Viewed as a whole, Liverpool’s performance was actually quite impressive. They won the majority of their individual battles, with Lucas Leiva and Henderson particularly authoritative. Can showed glimpses of his undoubted quality, though was again prone to heart-stopping lapses in concentration.
At the back, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho for the most part defended resolutely and were able to benefit from Wayne Rooney’s isolation.
In attack, Firmino used possession well and had the United backline rocking with several intricate touches, particularly when teeing-up Henderson for a great chance in the first-half.
Despite this, can Liverpool’s defeat really be described as ‘unlucky’? Not really. When you waste so many chances, defeat is never unlucky. Had they been more decisive in the crucial moments, Jurgen Klopp’s men could have greeted half-time 3-0 to the good. Instead, they went in at 0-0 and there was a palpable sense that an opportunity had been passed up. It had.
Klopp will undoubtedly be looking at ways in which his side can improve upon their comedic propensity to give away chances and goals on set-pieces with such startling regularity. He identified it early on in his tenure and has spoken about it many times since. Coaches of his stature do not let such glaring weaknesses go unrectified, but he will need time and finances to do this and the addition of QPR’s Steven Caulker can be seen as a short-term attempt to plug a long-term leak.
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Defeat to United is always like a left-hook to the stomach for Liverpool fans, especially with the Old Trafford club so passive and polite in much of their general play. However, viewed in isolation, Klopp will be able to see many of the hallmarks of his philosophy beginning to emerge.
Many of the flaws on show on Sunday were long-standing and, for some players, may never be ironed out, but the German is a ruthless manager behind that grin and hearty laugh. He will not hesitate to make the necessary adjustments to his squad when the opportunity truly presents itself.
The Liverpool on display for much of Wednesday’s game against Arsenal, some of Sunday’s game against United, and which eviscerated Chelsea, Manchester City and Southampton, all on their own grounds, is the one Klopp expects, the one he demands.
In Clyne, Sakho, Lucas, Can, Henderson, Coutinho and Firmino, he has a talented foundation upon which to build. The club also boasts a strong pool of young talent from which Klopp can choose.
The green shoots of recovery are there and the Reds have the right man at the helm. In such a short space of time, the former Borussia Dortmund man has been able to impress many of his ideals upon his squad and there is a much more optimistic feeling about the place than there has been in many years.
Rather than a symptom of terminal decline, defeats like Sunday’s can now be viewed as inevitable bumps along the road to success. The identity of Sunday’s victors should not mask that.