Forget United Mismatch, Rodgers’ Liverpool Renaissance Remains On Course
A trip to Old Trafford is always a tough test, but Sunday’s game felt like a timely examination for Brendan Rodgers’ fledgling Liverpool side.
Would it be an auspicious watershed game, underlining Liverpool’s revival under the Ulsterman or would it act as a chastening reminder of how far the Reds still have to go?
(The game didn’t need to represent either extreme of course, but the narrative surrounding Liverpool -and Brendan Rodgers- apparently must be binary: improvement/regression, genius/tosser, hero/villain etc.)
Sadly for Liverpool and their manager the United game exposed the disparate nature of the current Reds’ team.
Personally I wasn’t too disappointed by the result as I was certain that Liverpool would get beat (so I’d made the necessary mental preparations before the game). My only surprise was that United didn’t enjoy a larger winning margin. This Liverpool team are the perfect opponent for United; they play wide open football and are profoundly vulnerable when they lose possession.
Any lingering doubts about the certainty of a Liverpool defeat were banished when the team walked onto the pitch wearing red socks with black shirts and black shorts. If there’s one thing seasoned Liverpool supporters have learned in the last 40 years it’s that unconventional kit combinations rarely lead to good things. (I’m only half joking.)
So in the aftermath of the United defeat let’s reflect on why this cavernous 24-point gap exists.
You can discuss systems, formations, stats and tactics until the cows come home (and we often do of course – that’s MicroLFC’s raison d’être), but the harsh and ultimate truth at the moment is that Liverpool simply don’t have enough elite players to consistently compete with the likes of United.
At the highest echelons of football a team is only as strong as its weakest link and this Liverpool side is being undermined by more than one.
Rodgers is making a good fist of it and for many fans the improvements are clear. But tactical nous, man-management & motivation can only get you so far. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The players who faced United fall into two distinct camps:
Reina, Skrtel, Agger, Gerrard, Lucas, Suarez, Johnson. Blue chip, top tier players.
Downing, Sterling, Borini, Allen, Henderson, Wisdom. This group are currently -for a variety of reasons- not having a big enough impact on games on a consistent basis and it’s players from this cross-section that aren’t contributing as effectively as many fans would like.
So where do we go from here?
Let’s take a closer look at this second group.
Andre Wisdom is a Rolls Royce prospect. Most fans rate him very highly but he has no business being in a Liverpool FC starting XI at Old Trafford. Not yet.
Wisdom should be Liverpool’s third choice right back, but he’s been fast-tracked to the frontline. Not out of a noble belief in the virtues of youth, but out of desperation. It’s important we keep perspective on just how thin Liverpool’s squad is and Wisdom’s inclusion highlights this perfectly.
Similarly, in an ideal world Sterling wouldn’t have to be a regular starter and against United he again struggled to impact the game in a meaningful way. At this stage of his development he’d be better suited to being an impact sub/league cup starter. He’s doing incredibly well. For a boy.
In time Sterling will become more consistent and the runs that currently lead down blind alleys will give way to better decisions and more end-product as he gains experience.
Downing. It’s obscene that Liverpool paid £20m for such a mediocre footballer isn’t it? It’s harsh, but true: sign mid-table players and you get a mid-table team. Liverpool should sell him while there’s some value to be had. Chalk his signing up to experience and move on. Pronto.
It was welcome to see Joe Allen snapping into some tackles with intensity but he needs to show more ambition both with and without the ball as he develops. (He’s only 22, remember.)
Even though Allen clearly looks uncomfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal, it was good to see him playing in a slightly advanced position as it will benefit his development. (But did he have to play there against United? And might it not have been better to start with Henderson instead of Allen? And to use Gerrard as the foremost of the midfield three?)
Sturridge looked sharp and hungry and showed great anticipation for his goal when he followed in on Gerrard’s shot. That’s bread and butter centre forward play and it’s fantastic to see someone in that position, scoring goals like that for Liverpool again.
(It felt like the type of goal Dirk Kuyt could’ve scored. Or Maxi or Bellamy for that matter. Boy have we missed those ‘peripheral scorers’ this season. As a side issue, all three players could have flourished in a Rodgers’ 4-3-3. It’s a real shame they didn’t stick around for another season. Their goals, experience and game intelligence would have been priceless assets for Rodgers in his introductory season.)
Sturridge has made a promising start, but Rodgers needs a further 2-3 top quality players in his first eleven before this team can realise its aspirations. Until then defeats like this will continue to stain Liverpool’s progress.
It doesn’t feel like it right now under the shadow of a defeat to bitter rivals, but the future remains bright for Liverpool.
Rodgers’ side is improving and with each passing month the young members of the squad are gaining valuable experience.
Significant wage bill savings have been made this year and the manager knows who he still needs to ship out and where the quality gaps are in his team. FSG’s purse strings will be loosened in the summer (significantly, I think).
Sturridge and Borini will add an extra dimension to Liverpool’s play in the latter half of this transformational season too.
So despite Sunday’s result the club is still moving in the right direction.
Let’s shrug the United defeat off for what it is: 3 points lost in a evolutionary period. Nothing more. They caught Liverpool at a good time in their development, with inconsistent performances being commonplace. If Liverpool can add a few more thoroughbred players to the group (Sturridge looks like he may be one) then it’s unlikely United will be 21 points ahead of Liverpool the next time the two old rivals meet.