Brendan Rodgers led a Liverpool team at Old Trafford for the first time, knowing that his side have yet to beat anyone in the top half of the league this season. There would have been no better venue to correct that statistic than the home of the league leaders.
In order to do so, Rodgers made a couple of surprising selection decisions. The improving Jordan Henderson was dropped to accommodate Joe Allen while new signing Daniel Sturridge was also left on the bench. Luis Suarez led the line in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation, flanked by Sterling and Downing.
Lucas, Gerrard and Allen comprised the midfield trio. Interestingly, it was Allen that played further forward, behind Suarez. It was a move that this column has called for in the past, as Allen has been getting too easily outmuscled in midfield. As it transpired, the move didn’t suit Allen.
Liverpool have a terrible record at Old Trafford, and aside from that Fernando Torres-inspired win in 2009, the self-proclaimed Theatre Of Dreams has been a graveyard for scouse ambition in recent seasons. To avoid that happening again, Liverpool needed a fast start. They didn’t get one.
Forty five minutes to forget
In the 39th of the game, Lucas played a back-pass to Pepe Reina. It was somewhat off target, and ended up near the corner flag. Reina rushed from his goal to control it, he steadied himself for a couple of seconds before slicing the ball high in to the stand. That moment summed up Liverpool’s first half performance. It was shambolic.
Manchester United were very good, pressing Liverpool well in the opening half. Danny Welbeck in particular gave Pepe Reina little or no time to pick out passes. The forward forced Reina in to wild, arbitrary kicks to nobody in particular.
Whereas Agger and Skrtel are used to getting time on the ball after receiving the ball from Reina, they had little or none at Old Trafford. Luis Suarez was isolated and feeding off scraps, Sterling and Downing were an irrelevance.
Glen Johnson was poor by his exalted standards, while Joe Allen had a nightmare. Playing further forward may suit Allen in games against lesser opposition, but in the first half he looked at sea in the Old Trafford bear pit. Henderson, whose battling qualities are superior to Allen’s, may have been a better option. Rodgers later admitted that his side were tentative in the first half, as simple passes were misplaced repeatedly.
Gerrard overcooked a one-two with Suarez on the edge of United’s penalty area, Allen hit a suicidal back pass that required last ditch brilliance from Agger to remedy. Liverpool kept giving the ball away, allowing Michael Carrick to control the game. On the few occasions that Liverpool did actually get forward, there was rarely anyone other than Suarez in the penalty area. The first half was a horror show, and Liverpool were fortunate to be only one goal down at the break.
Van Persie 1-0 Liverpool
This game was portrayed in the media as a Van Persie/Suarez shootout. If so, it was the Dutman who walked away with a smoking gun, for it was he who put United ahead. It was a fabulous finish, but it was avoidable from a Liverpool point of view. Patrice Evra, who assisted the goal, was left in oceans of room on United’s left wing. Andre Wisdom was caught too close to the centre back Martin Skrtel, while Downing had wandered infield to try and win possession. It was a minor miracle that Liverpool trailed by just one goal at half time.
Rodgers shakes things up
Rodgers’ in-game management has gained recognition this season, as he has made changes that have tilted games in Liverpool’s favour. At half time in this game, he needed to perform surgery. Sturridge was unsurprisingly introduced. The surprise was the man coming off: Lucas. The Brazilian was on a yellow, and Rodgers went for broke. At 1-0 it was a slightly surprising call, given that Lucas would offer more protection to the back four and was playing infinitely better than Allen. Liverpool and Suarez needed Sturridge, as the Uruguayan was very isolated in the first half.
Sturridge led the line, and Suarez fell in behind him, mirroring United’s formation. It led to a much better Liverpool performance, as the Reds finally took the game to one of the weakest defences ever to defend fortress Old Trafford. Unfortunately, by that time, Liverpool were two down. The Reds were all over the place defending the free kick that led to the goal, and ultimately paid the price with Vidic probably getting the final touch to head the ball beyond Reina.
Fortune favours the brave
It took Steven Gerrard to haul Liverpool back to life. The captain did what he has done for years: led by example. He took the ball off Sterling to do what hardly any Liverpool player did all day. He shot. David De Gea’s penchant for diverting shots to the feet of attackers struck again, this time to Sturridge. Sturridge was somewhat fortunate, but credit to him for being on his toes to put himself in position to score. Credit also to Gerrard for having the bravery to make something happen.
While that offered Liverpool hope, and led to a domination of the final stages, De Gea was rarely troubled. Liverpool did play well in the final stages however; Allen was much better, refusing to be shoved off the ball and picking out some fine incisive passes. Sturridge’s link up play with Suarez was good, while Borini showed some encouraging signs on his return from injury. Liverpool’s fine display in the final stages was, in many ways, the most frustrating aspect of the game. United were there for the taking, and Liverpool would surely have claimed at least a point had they not been so off colour in the first half.
After the game, Rodgers spoke of his pride at his side’s fight back. It is a familiar narrative: Liverpool play well in spells against the big teams, but ultimately come off the pitch to a headline on the official website reading “Rodgers: We Deserved More”. That headline could be applied to both games against United, the City game at Anfield, the Goodison Derby and the draw at Stamford Bridge.
There were some positive signs in the defeat at Old Trafford, (Wisdom’s maturity, Sturridge’s energy) but in that sentence there is one over-reaching negative. It was a defeat at Old Trafford.
Soon, Liverpool need to deliver upon promise. They need to beat a big side. They need to combine pride and promise with points.